4. AfCFTA could be Egypt’s next game changer

Africa is putting continental integration and structural transformation in the spotlight. The African Union’s Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want, adopted in 2015 by the continent’s heads of state, outlines a pan-African vision and roadmap for the continent’s transformation towards a united, prosperous, inclusive and sustainable future. Within that agenda, continental integration and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) are presented as a key pillar for achieving prosperity on the continent (Box 4.1).

The AfCFTA builds on decades of initiatives to achieve continental integration (ECA, AU, AfDB and UNCTAD, 2019[1]). The goal of developing the continent by tapping into the opportunities of increased continental integration was part of the 1980 Lagos Plan of Action, backed by the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and was embodied in the 1991 Abuja Treaty that envisaged an African Economic Community (AEC). Since then, various continental integration initiatives have reaffirmed this objective, including the 2000 constitutive act of the African Union and the 2012 Boosting Intra-African Trade action plan.

Africa’s Regional Economic Communities (RECs) have been important building blocks in African integration. They comprise: the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the East African Community (EAC), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA). The COMESA-ECA-SADC Tripartite FTA (TFTA) was also an important step to regional integration and contributed to the implementation of the AfCFTA. The TFTA was launched in 2015 and ten members have ratified it, with four more needed to enable it to enter into force.

When fully implemented, the AfCFTA will create an integrated African market of 1.2 billion people, almost equal to the population of India, and the world’s biggest single market for goods and services by number of countries. In fact, the agreement aims at removing tariffs on 97% of imported goods from member states over a period of between 5 and 15 years from entry into force. It also aims at reducing non-tariff barriers while fostering standards harmonisation, customs co-operation and trade facilitation.

The scope of the AfCFTA exceeds that of traditional free trade agreements (FTAs). The protocols of the agreement go beyond trade in goods to include trade in services, rules and procedures on the settlements of disputes, investment, competition policy, intellectual property rights and e-commerce. The first three protocols were the subject of the first phase of AfCFTA negotiations, the second three will be negotiated during 2021, and e-commerce will be the subject of a third phase of negotiations that will take place in parallel with the second one (Table 4.1). The AfCFTA is complemented by the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Right to Residence and Right to Establishment, which is intended to ease movement of people across the continent; and the Single African Air Transport Market, which aims to improve efficiency in continental air transportation and to increase the continent’s share of the global aviation industry.

While African countries were working to address the pending issues, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, putting global economies under unprecedented stress. Although this initially hindered the process of ratification and implementation, as well as finalisation of pending issues, the AfCFTA negotiations are now back on track.

Although trading under the AfCFTA Agreement officially began on 1 January 2021, in practice, commercial trading under the preferential terms of the agreement has been limited due to a number of outstanding issues that need to be addressed. Among these the main issues are:

  • Finalisation of tariff schedules for trade in goods (i.e. lists of 90% of non-sensitive product lines, 7% of sensitive items and 3% of excluded products).

  • Commitments on the five priority services sectors – transport, communications, financial services, tourism and business services.

  • Finalisation of rules of origin (i.e. the rules that determine the percentage of the national components in goods that are granted tariff concessions in the free trade area), especially sugar, textiles and wearing apparel, and edible oils.

  • Putting in place the necessary customs infrastructure to facilitate preferential trading under the AfCFTA (with the exception of Egypt, Ghana and South Africa, which have already established the required customs arrangements).

Africa is among the world’s least integrated continents and regions. Intra-regional trade on the continent stands at 15%, compared to 67% in Europe and 52% in Southeast Asia. African countries trade little with each other, mostly exporting primary commodities to the world, while being dependent on critical imports from abroad. Enhanced continental integration holds the promise of supporting industrialisation as, in general, Africa trades a higher share of manufacturing products within the continent than it does with the rest of the world. The share of intra-African manufacturing exports stands at 30%, double that of total exports.

Nevertheless, the aggregate picture masks significant differences in the pace of integration across the continent (Figure 4.1). Most intra-African trade takes place within RECs, although the extent of integration varies (Box 4.2). For example, regional trade is highest in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), where trade within the region accounts for 20% of the total – double the share of the second-ranked REC in this respect, the East African Community (EAC). The AfCFTA offers an opportunity for RECs to tap into under-exploited export markets in African countries outside of their regional groupings. The same holds for imports – the AfCFTA offers countries the opportunity to import possibly cheaper intermediates from African countries outside their RECs. Some RECs show a higher specialisation in intra-regional manufacturing – such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in which intra-REC manufacturing exports reach 45%, as the regional market represents a large outlet for exports of some its major producers such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Senegal.

Value chains within Africa are underdeveloped. Approximately 94.8% of the foreign value added (FVA) embedded in African exports comes from outside the continent. Top sources include the People’s Republic of China (hereafter “China”) (12.3% of total), the United States (11%), Germany (10%) and France (6%) (Figure 4.2). South Africa is Africa’s largest value chain hub, and a key source of inputs for exports by Mauritius. For Egypt, China is the top source of FVA, accounting for 16.3% of total, followed by India (13.6%), the United States (9.4%), Germany (8%) and the United Kingdom (5.6%). By contrast, Morocco has higher production linkages with Europe, with France accounting for 16.5% of total FVA, followed by Spain (12.5%).

The picture in Africa is very different from East and Southeast Asia, which features dense regional production networks; about half of FVA (55.4%) is sourced from within the region. In East and Southeast Asia, tighter regional integration has been a major driver of industrialisation through waves of foreign investments aiming to tap into the different assets of various locations in the region. In turn, the creation of regional supply chains have underpinned efforts to further regional integration (Figure 4.3).

Achieving effective continental integration requires more than having an agreement in force. The extent to which agreements are effective depends on multiple elements. The following are some lessons learned from experiences in ASEAN, Latin America and the Caribbean and the EU:

  • Tariff reduction and elimination is necessary, but identifying existing non-tariff barriers (NTBs) and adopting a strategy to eliminate them is difficult. For example, the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), established in 1991, prioritised tariff elimination, but has not advanced as much on addressing NTBs, hampering effective integration. The AfCFTA also targets eliminating NTBs, and to this end includes a built-in NTB mechanism and annexes on trade facilitation, customs co-operation and transit trade.

  • Achieving regional/continental integration is a long-term process. While the elimination of trade barriers can create a space for increased continental production and trade networks to develop, these take time to emerge. Ambition needs to be matched by patience and taking a step-by-step approach in realising the potential of an integrated continental market. ASEAN, for example, experimented with local integration processes in border regions, the so-called “growth triangles” (Box 4.3). Africa could build on similar cross-border initiatives within RECs to build a more macro-level integration.

  • Informal ties, trust and networking matter to advance towards integration. While legal instruments can offer some guarantees of operating within integrated regions, cultivating informal ties, networking and trust are essential for working together effectively. In ASEAN, business co-operation through the establishment of business councils, participation in ministerial meetings, and public-private partnerships have been key in exchanging ideas and proposals and fostering connections among stakeholders (Box 4.3). AfCFTA also enjoys the support of the private sector. The AfroChampions Initiative, a set of public-private partnerships and programmes to promote the African private sector, has played a particularly important role in supporting the AfCFTA process, and the private sector is now central to the development of AfCFTA national implementation strategies, supported by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the African Union Commission (AUC).

  • Mutual recognition can work better than harmonisation. Harmonisation is a lengthy process and may not necessarily be the best approach when dealing with long-established national regulatory practices. The EU adopts a mutual recognition approach to facilitate market access for goods that are only partly subject to EU harmonisation legislation. Standards harmonisation and mutual recognition agreements in Africa are being promoted by the African Organisation for Standardisation (ARSO).

  • The private sector needs incentives to go regional. In certain cases, value chains feature already-established networks of suppliers, and shifting to new vendors can be risky. Also, a fully supportive ecosystem is lacking to enable finding new and reliable partners (e.g. financing and insurance providers for cross-border activities). Incentives are needed to compensate the private sector for the increased risk in exploring the new regional market and fostering ecosystems to be built around the newly formed supply chains. Given the tight fiscal constraints faced by countries, these incentives need to be carefully designed and prioritised for maximum impact.

  • A financial and digital ecosystem needs to be in place to realise the potential of trade integration. Trading across regions requires a variety of financial services (e.g. export and credit guarantees, insurance provision for cross-border activities) and non-traditional financial tools, such as fintech. Connectivity, both transport and digital, is also important. Africa is advancing on these issues. For example, the African Development Bank (AfDB) helps mobilise financial resources for the continental market. Since 2013 the AfDB’s trade finance facilities have supported around 1 800 trade transactions, with over 60% (USD 322 million) targeting SMEs. Digital transformation and integration is also important, now more than ever, as highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The digital divide between Africa and the rest of the world remains high. In 2021, Internet speed in Africa was seven times lower than in the OECD [authors’ elaboration on (Ookla, 2021[7])]. To this end, in 2020 the African Union launched the Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030) to harness digital technologies for Africa’s transformation and fast-track national-level adaptation and implementation.

  • Africa has the opportunity to take a place-based approach from the get-go. Integration efforts elsewhere, such as those in ASEAN, did not take a local perspective as a starting point. Africa has the opportunity, instead, of following a linear process and relying on a space-blind approach to kick-start a more balanced process that takes regions into account. Emphasising territorial and economic de-centralisation from megacities could be an important component in this respect. Urban growth in ASEAN is already moving towards smaller cities beyond capital regions.

  • Measures must be put in place to ensure no one is left behind. The benefits of the AfCFTA, like in other trade agreements, will likely be uneven within countries, with different sectors and firms facing unique opportunities and challenges. Across countries, too, gains will differ depending on a variety of factors, from country size and geography to history and production specialisation, among others. Countries will need to monitor closely the impact of AfCFTA on their economies to ensure that complementary policies and strategies respond to emerging challenges, and to develop social safety nets to ensure that no one is left behind and adjustment to the agreement is smooth.

Egypt trades little with the rest of Africa. Its exports to Africa have tripled since the mid-2000s, and represent 15.4% of the country’s total; this is similar to Nigeria (15.5%), and less than half with respect to South Africa (26%) (Figure 4.4). However, Europe remains the main destination for Egyptian exports, accounting for 31.1% of the total – followed closely by Western Asia (30.5%), which includes countries in the Middle East.

Within Africa, Egypt exports mainly to fellow North African countries, the top three being Libya (2.4%), Algeria and Morocco; while the top sub-Saharan African destinations are Kenya (1.2%), Ethiopia and Nigeria. Africa’s share of imports to Egypt is five times less than its share of exports, at around 3%. By contrast, Europe accounts for as much as 37.3% of imports. Egypt’s top sources from Africa include Algeria (0.6%), Kenya (0.5%) and Zambia (0.4%). Africa is the only region with which Egypt runs a trade surplus, reaching on average USD 3 billion annually during 2018-20. Egypt’s relatively low participation in intra-African trade is in line with trends on the continent.

The AfCFTA could provide more scale to Egypt’s African exports while adding to their sophistication, thereby improving Egypt’s participation in the world economy. Egypt is the fifth-largest exporter in Africa, accounting for 6.3% of continental exports, about three times less than Africa’s top exporter, South Africa (20%) and similar to the level of Morocco (6.1%) (data for 2018-20). Additionally, the country’s trade with Africa follows a different structure compared to its trade with the world (Figure 4.5). The majority of the country’s African exports are manufactures (61.5%), while its African imports are overwhelmingly primary ones (83.3% of total). By contrast, 52.3% of Egypt’s world exports are commodities. Among Egypt’s top manufacturing exports to Africa are chemicals (16.5%), such as perfumes, non-metallic mineral manufactures (8%) and plastics (6.8%). Petroleum and gas still makes up a large share of exports to Africa (14.5%) and an even bigger share of imports (25%). Other important imports from Africa include non-ferrous metals (19%) and coffee, cocoa, tea and spices (14.2%). Although the ultimate results of the AfCFTA remain to be seen, estimates suggest that Egypt could leverage its position as one of Africa’s key industrial and export hubs to strengthen structural change. For example, ECA’s scenarios show that Egypt could experience an increase in both GDP and exports following the implementation of the AfCFTA (Box 4.4).

AfCFTA is expected to add 32 new FTA partners for Egypt (Figure 4.7). This will include some of the continent’s largest economies, including Nigeria and South Africa. The AfCFTA adds to Egypt’s several existing trade agreements. Egypt became a member of GATT in 1970 and of WTO in 1995. It has also been a member of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) since 1994 (COMESA’s FTA was established in 2000) and the Pan-Arab Free Trade Area (PAFTA) since 1998. The 2000s and 2010s brought new FTAs, such as those with the European Union (EU) (2004); with Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia (Agadir Agreement, 2007); with Turkey (2007); the European Free Trade Association (2007); and, more recently, with the Southern Common Market MERCOSUR (2017). Additionally, Egypt has a protocol with Israel and the United States for the export of industrial goods and benefits from non-reciprocal Generalised Systems of Preferences schemes, notably from the United States, among others.

The AfCFTA could enable Egypt to connect to traditional partners in Europe and the Middle East as well as to the overall global market. As a result, Egypt and other industrial centres could become hubs for investments in both manufacturing and services. Apart from investments in manufacturing (see Chapters 1 and 3), Egypt is aiming to position itself as a regional service hub, tapping its large workforce. It is already the second-largest exporter of telecommunication, computer and information services in Africa, accounting for 15% of the total – behind only Morocco (30%) [data for 2017-19, elaboration on (ITC, 2021[12])].

Egypt can benefit from AfCFTA through a strategy that views it as a way to strengthen its domestic industrial capabilities. Egypt has previously improved infrastructure by establishing shipping lines to the continent and strengthening transport links with Africa. In the context of the Egyptian Exports to African Markets Strategy 2020, the Egyptian Ministry of Public Business Sector has advanced in the implementation of Gosour (bridges), a project to build shipping lines and promote foreign trade between Egypt and Central and East Africa. As part of the first phase of Gosour, a shipping line from Ain Sokhna (Egypt) to Mombasa (Kenya) was launched in 2019. A storage and logistics centre also operates in Kenya, inaugurated in 2017. Egypt has also facilitated trade by implementing the National Single Window (NSW), which was launched by Prime Ministerial decree in 2020, and which Egypt aims to link with the Regional Single Window in Africa, and the ACI (Advanced Cargo Information System) for faster trade lanes, launched in 2021 through Ministry of Finance Decree No. 38/2021. Egypt is also looking to activate the role of the Export Development Bank and the Export Credit Guarantee Company of Egypt (ECGE) to provide trade financing, guarantees and services to exporters to African countries.

However, more is needed in order for Egypt to make the most of AfCFTA. Targeted national strategies designed to take advantage of AfCFTA will ensure that Egypt and other African countries can actually benefit from the agreement. These will require intense processes of consultation with multiple stakeholders and notably with the business community and entrepreneurs. Egypt’s national reform agenda involves industrial policies for strengthening productive capacities (discussed in Chapter 2 of this PTPR for Egypt) to competition policies, logistics and infrastructure (Figure 4.8. ). AfCFTA is not a aimed at reducing partnerships and internationalisation in Africa; rather, it is a tool for ensuring that trade can effectively benefit African citizens while fostering industrialisation, economic transformation and innovation on the continent. International partners (both traditional and emerging) will play an important role for Africa and Egypt to ensure that AfCFTA acts as a driver of improved and more beneficial integration into the world economy.

Egypt could also harness such partnerships to help craft an integrated vision to benefit from AfCFTA – building on existing initiatives, but going beyond trade to take into account other relevant policy areas, such as local industrial development and investment attraction, and bringing together all relevant stakeholders (Figure 4.8). For example, the ECA is working with governments across the continent to ensure they are defining and implementing their national strategies to capture the benefits of AfCFTA by mapping the different areas of policy that need to be reviewed to take into account the new realities of a more integrated continent (Box 4.5).

Egypt would also benefit from setting up a monitoring and evaluation system to track the progress of AfCFTA implementation in relation to Egypt’s Vision 2030 strategic plan. The system can be a powerful tool for reducing the information gap with the private sector, raising awareness on the opportunities and potential challenges created by the AfCFTA and the policies and tools undertaken by the government to ensure effective implementation. Such a system would also enable Egypt to quickly spot emerging issues and adapt strategies to respond to these.

Among the key pillars of a national strategy to benefit from AfCFTA, Egypt needs to address three enabling conditions:

First, Egypt will need to reduce non-tariff barriers that hamper continental integration and participation of domestic firms in continental value chains. In Egypt, the average lead time to export is 6.7 days, the same as Morocco and similar to Malaysia (6.5), but time to import is substantially higher than Egypt’s peers, standing at 5 days compared to 3 in Morocco and 2 in Malaysia (World Bank Indicators). A survey of 869 Egyptian importers and exporters by the International Trade Centre (ITC) in 2016 showed that 38% of firms faced regulatory and procedural trade obstacles (ITC, 2016[13]). With regards to domestic obstacles, the most common barriers identified were delays, administrative burdens and high fees and charges. Import licensing and registration requirements are also a burden for importers, particularly those that are based outside of special economic zones or free trade zones that apply different customs regulations (Chapter 2). All importers must seek registration according to Law No. 7/2017. Among some of the conditions imposed for importers are that the company must be majority Egyptian owned (up to 49% foreign ownership – prior to this law only 100% ownership was allowed), that they have been registered in the Commercial Registry for at least a year and that they have a paid-in capital of EGP 5 million (around EUR 26 000). Enhancing market information and intelligence, and helping firms deal with cultural and language barriers when trading across borders, are also important.

Second, improving infrastructure and transport connectivity is necessary for boosting the capacity of Egypt to reach out to new markets and ensure that critical goods reach the places that need them most. Egypt has a strategic position linking Africa, Europe and the Middle East. This has given it an advantage with regard to maritime transport through the Suez Canal, which handles 7.5% of world maritime traffic. According to UNCTAD’s maritime index, Egypt is the second-most-connected country in Africa (after Morocco) and the 22nd-most-connected in the world (UNCTAD, 2021[3]) . However, infrastructure still faces big challenges, such as a fragmented port system, lack of co-ordination among modes of transport and a rail network in need of upgrading (OECD, 2020[14]). This significantly raises the costs of doing business in the country.

It will be crucial to maintain the recent increase in infrastructural investments while ensuring they are well aligned with Egypt’s overall production transformation strategy and the country’s vision for AfCFTA. In the absence of internationally comparable data on infrastructure spending, investments in fixed assets can provide a proxy. Gross fixed-capital formation in Egypt reached a peak of around 30% of GDP in the 1980s, but since then has dropped by almost half, with an average of 15.3% during 2010-19. Nevertheless, improved macroeconomic performance in recent years has led to a recent uptick in investments. While Egypt’s share of investment has gone down, the African average has gone up by 13% since 1990. Developing countries with an export-oriented strategy have also seen an increase in global capital formation rates, such as Morocco (by 7.3%) and Indonesia (by 6%). Egypt’s declining investments are driven by a steady retreat of public sector investments, from around 19% of GDP in 1990 to between 5% and 10% since 2000 (Figure 4.9). Private sector investments have not filled the investment gap, despite a peak prior to the global financial crisis, and have averaged 9% of GDP since the 1990s [see also (OECD, 2020[14])].

Third, advancing in digital connectivity. Egypt’s Internet penetration reached 57.3% of the population in 2019 (ITU, 2021[16]). This is more than double compared to 2010 and twice the African average, and in line with some regional peers, such as South Africa (56.2%). Nevertheless, there is room for improvement. In Germany, as in other advanced countries, the share reaches 88%; in Malaysia it is 84%, and in Morocco it is 74.4%. Egypt has also advanced in terms of mobile connectivity coverage. In 2019 in Egypt 4G made-up 20% of connections of total mobile connections in the country, compared to 9% in sub-Saharan Africa (Figure 4.10). Meanwhile, in the OECD, 4G technologies accounted for 58% of connections in 2019. In January 2020, Egypt was one of seven countries in Africa where operators were investing in 5G technology (GSA, 2020[17]).

Egypt is providing some of the most affordable Internet in Africa, and Internet speed has been increasing (Figure 4.11). Fixed broadband costs 3.22% of GNI per capita and mobile 1.1% in 2020, similar to some regional peers, such as Morocco (3.93% and 0.79%, respectively) and Tunisia (2.97% and 1.28% respectively), and lower than the African median (18.26% and 4.67%). There is no standard way to measure Internet speed, but some businesses are aggregating user-generated data to calculate how long it takes to upload or download data. Information collected by Ookla, a US-based firm, suggests that in April 2021 Egypt’s fixed broadband speed was 39.66 Mbps, making it the highest in North Africa (the world average is 66.86 Mbps). Based on this data, it would take 18 minutes to download a 5-gigabyte movie in Egypt, but only 3 minutes in Korea, the country with the fastest Internet in the OECD. Egypt’s Internet speed has increased by more than six times within a little over a year, from 6.5 Mbps in December 2018. Egypt’s improvement in speed has been facilitated by investments to modernise the country’s Internet infrastructure since mid-2018 amounting to USD 1.6 billion. This helped accommodate the increased usage during COVID-19 lockdown (March-May 2020), when home Internet usage increased by 99% and that of mobile Internet by 35%, and international calls increased by 19%, while peak Internet usage increased from about 7 hours to 15 hours, according to information provided by the National Telecom Regulatory Authority (NTRA).

AfCFTA could be a game changer for Egypt and for the whole continent. The agreement holds the promise of unleashing the continent’s industrialisation process, if targeted national strategies are put in place to benefit from it. Africa trades little within the continent and mostly exports commodities and raw materials to the rest of the world. So does Egypt, despite being among the continent’s few industrial heavyweights. AfCFTA could change that, by incentivising continental entrepreneurs to set up new continental business ventures, and by fostering upgrading and innovation in established firms across the continent.

But AfCFTA also has substantial potential to facilitate Egypt’s and Africa’s integration into the world economy. It opens up opportunities for updating international integration and co-operation patterns – with both traditional and emerging partners – to achieve the vision of a prosperous, united and sustainable Africa. The upcoming PTPR Spotlight project “Harnessing the potential of AfCFTA for transforming Egypt”, carried out in co-operation with Afreximbank and ECA, will analyse these issues in more depth.


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