The Waiting Game: A Challenge to Intra-African Trade

A few years ago, I was in southern Zambia, near the border with Zimbabwe. Fascinated as I am by arbitrary things like national borders, I asked my guide if one could set foot in Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s realm without a visa. “Yes,” he replied, there is a way: the Victoria Falls bridge, which spans the gorge of the Zambezi just downstream of the waterfall whose name it bears. The Zimbabwean border post is around half a mile from the bridge’s end, so one can step briefly into the country without ever crossing paths with officialdom.

This is how I found myself on an impressive turn-of-the-century steel arch bridge, 130 meters from the roaring waters below. I crossed the border, an invisible line cutting the bridge in half, and walked briefly on Zimbabwe’s soil. It was almost anticlimactically easy.

The same could not be said for the experience of dozens of trucks, lined up along the road, waiting to be processed for export from Zambia. Once the documents have been stamped and checked a preposterous number of times, the trucks can cross the bridge, all so they can go through the same rigmarole to enter Zimbabwe.

There is a common theme at border crossings and weigh stations across Africa: traders milling around, sleeping on the ground, chatting with each other or finding some way to pass the time, as bureaucrats meander through the considerable paperwork that accompanies intra-African trade. As a 2012 report from the African Development Bank (AfDB) notes: “the average customs transaction involves 20–30 different parties, 40 documents, 200 data elements (30 of which repeated at least 30 times), and the rekeying of 60–70 percent of all data at least once.”

“There is a common theme at border crossings and weigh stations across Africa: traders milling around, sleeping on the ground, chatting with each other or finding some way to pass the time, as bureaucrats meander through the considerable paperwork that accompanies intra-African trade.”

As a result, waits at the border can last very long indeed. Figures are imprecise, but the same AfDB paper says that, on average, these “can range from 3 minutes to 2.8 days.” It can be even worse at busy crossing points like Malaba, on the Nairobi-Kampala highway, where “trucks can wait anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks.” Every delay means more spending and pushes up the price of goods. In Southern and Eastern Africa, customs hold-ups alone cost nearly $60 million annually. In West Africa, the need to bribe officials along trade routes costs truckers $200 on average, per trip. When you account for taxes, duties, and the impact of poor infrastructure, it is no small wonder that the costs of transportation in Africa are among the highest in the world; on average, they are 136 percent higher than in other developing regions.

Unsurprisingly, intra-African trade accounts for such a small proportion of the continent’s total trade (15 percent), compared to intra-Asian and intra-European trade (50 percent and 70 percent, respectively). The present barriers to trade can be so difficult to overcome that African companies are simply more likely to do with business with European, Asian, or American partners than they are to engage with neighboring countries. It is often easier, and less expensive, for them to do so.

Where there is trade between African countries, close to 40 percent of it is borne by informal transactions. For small traders, following official channels is too expensive and too time-consuming to be lucrative.

Confronted by the lackluster state of trade on the continent, African states have established a staggering number of trade areas in the hopes of improving the situation. These blocs—17 in all—are credited with the small, albeit positive, improvement in intra-African trading since the 1990s. Generally speaking, these trade agreements will reduce or eliminate duties on certain goods, provide funding for improved infrastructure, and perhaps allow visa-free travel for citizens. However, though launched with the best intentions, deals all too frequently fall victim to bureaucratic and political resistance. The AfDB report observes that “much more effort is required to harmonize and integrate sub-regional markets [in Africa].” Political dawdling is but one challenge impeding economic integration. Another is the imbalance of economic power wielded by African states. According to an EU briefing, five countries alone (South Africa, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Egypt) account for 62.3 percent of total intra-African exports.

“The present barriers to trade can be so difficult to overcome that African companies are simply more likely to do with business with European, Asian, or American partners than they are to engage with neighboring countries.”

While there is no simple solution for these kinds of systemic imbalances, enhanced economic cooperation can help level the playing field. This is one of the key forces driving the decision of 26 states to form a comprehensive free trade zone. The Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA), announced in June 2015, will bring together three major trading areas and, if formally adopted, would be the largest in Africa. Regional political and business leaders are hoping the TFTA will provide a substantial windfall for the continent—estimates from UNCTAD suggest that a trade agreement of this nature would double the share of continental trade by 2022, “with a particularly positive impact in the trade of industrial products.” Deepening market integration, it is hoped, will reduce poverty levels and encourage greater foreign investment in Africa.

Whether the infant TFTA can survive the notoriously arcane negotiations that surround multilateral deals in Africa remains to be seen. Even if it is implemented, the deal could easily go the way of so many others: nice on paper, but lacking any substance. And without meaningful efforts to improve railway and road infrastructure, even the most trade-friendly deal will be meaningless. Excessive bureaucracy and customs hold-ups can be resolved at the stroke of a pen. Creating and maintaining the infrastructure for trade, however, is a little more complicated.

Image: A road sign on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Photograph by Jean-Paul Honegger.


Jean-Paul Honegger is a 2015 graduate of Bowdoin College, where he majored in Asian studies and history. He has previously written for The Independent and the UN’s Department of Public Information. He lives and works near Geneva, Switzerland.

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