Your guide to AfCFTA

The African Continental Free trade agreement was enforced by the African Union (AU) in May 2019. However, implementation of it’s trade benefit has only been possible since January 2021 when the first preferential rates were published. Let’s look at what this trade agreement entails, and how it affects South African businesses who import and export.

What is the AFCFTA?

As a flagship project of the AU, AfCFTA is not an international organisation in itself. It is a member driven treaty with a communal goal of “boosting intra-African trade, integration and development by creating an integrated market for goods and services, and promoting cross-border movement of capital and persons”. It does so by means of independent negotiations between African member states and customs unions.

This means SACU, the South African Customs Union of which South Africa is a member, may enter into negotiations with other member states and trade blocs that ensure unique reciprocal benefit. Because SACU works off one communal tariff book, South Africa may not negotiate as a standalone entity. All negotiations must be with the other four members, namely Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini and Botswana.

What is a Customs Union?

Also called a “trade union” or “trade bloc”.

A Customs Union is a free trade area with a common external tariff which consists of more than one country. Typically, the members of a customs union work off one customs policy and tariff book. No customs duties are payable on shipments between members of a customs union.

Although the agreement is up and running, a lot of its legislation is still in progress of being finalised. This includes the Rules of Origin which are currently finalised for over 80% of tariff lines.

The intent is however to have all outstanding works, including tariff offers and rules of origin, completed by end of June 2021. All current tariffs and rules are therefore not based on completed negotiations and act as an interim measure. For example, until a dedicated AfCFTA certificate of origin may be issued by SARS, SADC certificates linked to an AfCFTA registration are sufficient.

Reciprocity in AFCFTA

The rules of the agreement specify that tariff benefit under AfCFTA must be reciprocal to be granted. This means only member countries and customs unions who offer preferential rates of duty on imports may receive reduced tariffs under AfCFTA on their exports.

Currently, besides SACU, the members who have listed AfCFTA preferential duty rates in their tariff schedules are:

Under the rules of reciprocity, only imports from these countries into SACU may receive tariff benefit, and South African exports may only get preferential duty rates in these member states. More countries are set to join this list as tariff negotiations are finalised.

Members who have submitted tariff offers to South Africa are:

  • The Economic Community of Central African States (CEMAC) which consists of Gabon, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Republic of Congo, and Equatorial Guinea
  • The East African Community (EAC) which includes Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.
  • Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) which consists of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Cote D’ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo

The requirements of implementation

For a member state to trade under AfCFTA:

  • Outstanding Negotiations must be concluded.
  • Results of tariff negotiations must be adopted (AfCFTA must approve proposed tariff schedules and rules of origin).
  • Domestic laws and procedures must be in place. This includes updated tariff books.
  • Tariff books in a customs union, like SACU, reflect a common external tariff which all members must ratify.
  • Legislation, tariffs and rules regarding AfCFTA must be published and publicly available (gazetted).

Parallelism in AfCFTA

Although 8 existing trade agreements, or regional economic communities (RECs) are recognised in the AfCFTA legislation, these agreements are not affected or superseded by AfCFTA and remain in place. Furthermore, these organisations do not have any rights within AfCFTA. Only state parties (member countries and customs unions) have rights to negotiate and may offer preferential duties. There are also no long-term plans for AfCFTA to result in the disbanding of existing treaties.

What is a Trade Agreement?

A Trade Agreement is an agreements between two or more nations on how they will work together to ensure mutual trade benefit. These agreements determine the tariffs, or taxes and duties, that the countries impose on on e another’s imports. Generally, when countries have a Trade Agreement in place, goods move more easily between those countries, and less duty taxes are imposed on the goods.

The trade agreements that feature in AfCFTA legislation are shown here:

AfCFTA’s implementation plans

Implementation of AfCFTA goals are divided into two phases:

Phase one is focussed on the movement of goods and the five priority service sectors, namely financial services, communication, transport, tourism, and professional services.

Practically speaking, for importers and exporters, phase one consists of stimulating intra-African trade by removing duties, setting rules of origin and dispute resolution, and by battling non-tariff barriers. Examples of non-tariff barriers are convoluted bureaucracy, unnecessary delays at borders, corruption, and logistical limitations. AfCFTA has set up an online tool traders may use to report non-tariff barriers for investigation called Trade Barriers Africa. The tool can be accessed here.

Phase two of AfCFTA implementation is focussed on investment, competition and intellectual property, as well as the development of e-commerce in Africa.

Phasing out import duties to allow free trade

 Although state parties have freedom of negotiation, the minimum requirements of AfCFTA in terms of reducing and removing duties are:

  • 90% of tariff lines must be liberalised (made duty free) over 5 years. For least developed member countries this deadline is extended to 10 years.
  • 7% additional tariff lines must be liberalised over 10 years. For least developed member countries this deadline is extended to 13 years.
  • 3% tariff lines may be excluded from liberalisation to allow members protection for their most sensitive markets.
  • Tariff phasedown must happen in equal instalments (20% reduction per annum on 90% of tariff lines, over 5 years).

Therefore, although we are not yet seeing major duty benefit on imports in the South African tariff book, we soon will.

Although the intention of AfCFTA is to assist the movement of goods, its still required for customs law in the country of export and the county of import to be adhered to. This includes permits for regulated goods and certificates of conformity.

What must South African traders do about AfCFTA?

Keep an eye on trustworthy sources (such as this article) for up to date news on countries who offer and allow preferential duties, as well as other news regarding AfCFTA implementation.

Importers can consult the South African tariff book to monitor current duties levied on their goods under AfCFTA.

Exporters can monitor AfCFTA implementation in their target countries and anticipate demand from their buyers to become AfCFTA compliant. Practically speaking this means registering as a AfCFTA exporter in order to supply the relevant certificates of origin buyers need to claim preferential duties.

Need assistance with your import and export registrations, or advice on international trade compliance? We’re here for you. Simply get in touch with our knowledgeable consultants for all the help you need.

About the author

Frieda-Marié de Jager

With a degree in design from CPUT, Frieda-Marié started her career in digital and content marketing in 2013. Since joining Import Export License in 2019, she’s created several e-books, guides, blog posts, and newsletters on international trade. On weekends you can find her building Lego with the family, walking her beagle, or whipping up a storm in the kitchen.