Science, technology and innovation (STI) must be placed at the centre of the implementation of the African Free Trade Continental Area (AfCFTA). The continental trade agreement came into sharp focus during a virtual event to mark Africa Day last week.

The AfCFTA – the world's largest free-trade area – started trading on 1 January 2021, creating a market of 1,2 billion people and the eighth economic bloc in the world with a combined GDP of $3 trillion, which is projected to more than double by 2050.

The AfCFTA has been welcomed as a significant milestone for Africa, and is expected to boost intra-Africa trade and development.

According to the World Bank, the AfCFTA has the potential of lifting 30 million Africans out of extreme poverty and boosting income by over $400 billion by 2035.

Signed by 54 out of 55 countries, the agreement includes trade in goods and services, investments, intellectual property rights, and competition policy between and within African countries, to help promote the accomplishment of the African Union's Agenda 2063, the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals and the Science, Technology, and Innovation Strategy for Africa.

With infrastructure development and well-aligned policy frameworks in member states, AfCFTA is expected to empower previously disadvantaged populations by providing massive entrepreneurship and job opportunities, more especially to women and the youth.  This will be accomplished by enabling effective import-export trade links between the approximately 1,2 billion people on the African continent.

The African Institute of South Africa, part of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), an entity of the Department of Science and Innovation, organised the webinar.

Delivering the keynote address, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Buti Manamela, said that, while tariff liberalisation was important, trade facilitation was also needed, such as measures to reduce red tape, simplify customs procedures and provide the necessary support mechanisms to integrate African small to medium enterprises and large businesses into regional and global value chains.

"Science, technology and innovation will play an increasingly important role in realising these projections, as it is it is both an enabler and engine for the aspirations of this trade agreement," he added.

The Deputy Minister said that STI, particularly innovation, could increase employment, create livelihoods at grassroots level, and improve government performance and service delivery.

"Through innovation the continent has an opportunity to enhance its development and improve the quality of life of all Africans. This is possible as innovation enables the increased competitiveness of Africa's economies, the formation of new technology-based firms, the renewal and modernisation of existing industries, the exploitation of new sources of economic growth, and the promotion of sustainability," he said.

Prof. Heidi van Rooyen, Group Executive of the HSRC's Impact Centre, said that achieving AfCFTA's objectives would require the continent to pioneer a new path in its drive to industrialise.

"As we explore spaces for applying science, technology and innovation, a key challenge is ensuring that human production and consumption of goods and services presents minimal adverse environmental degradation," she said.

Van Rooyen said that it was important to grow knowledge continuously, and that applying STI to deliver green goods and services was the core of innovation, adding that Africa currently lagged behind the rest of the world in this endeavour.  She stressed the need to ensure that the continent had an adequate, sustainable and reliable energy supply, as this was critical for the AfCFTA and for African goods and services to compete favourably in global markets.

Prof. Achille Mbembe, a major figure in the fields of African history, politics and social science, warned that there was still a risk of Africa being seen as a permanent emergency zone, more suited to humanitarian interventions than future-orientated development strategies.

Widely regarded as one of the most important public intellectuals writing about contemporary African and global phenomena in the world today, Mbembe said Africa should therefore shift its focus from its needs to its assets, and not only financial assets.

"They include the physical, environmental, social and cultural attributes that can be framed as inputs into local economic development," he said, highlighting factors such as climate change that compelled Africa to reduce its vulnerabilities and invent new ways to live with the earth.

"For the continent to craft a new alternative model of growth in the 21st century, it will need to substantially reduce its vulnerability to climate change," he said.

Mbembe added that the gap between the economic, the social and the ecological should be closed, as no model that did not put sustainable ecosystems at its centre to support critical environmental and economic functions would lift the continent out of poverty.