The Youth and AfCFTA: Perceptions and Experiences of Trading Under the African Continental Free Trade Area

Africa, home to nearly 70% of the global youth population, is witnessing a pivotal moment in its developmental trajectory. The urgent need to integrate youth into decision-making processes stems from the realization that they are not just future beneficiaries but vital stakeholders in Africa's journey towards progress. Despite this recognition, the contributions of African youth, aged 15 to 35, have long been undervalued socially, politically, and economically. However, recent initiatives such as investments by the African Development Bank and the World Bank have sought to harness the potential of the continent's youthful demographic.
Published 25 June 2024

While success stories abound, challenges persist. Youth unemployment rates in Africa are alarmingly high, with limited opportunities for meaningful participation in the labour market. Governance issues exacerbate these challenges, perpetuating cycles of poverty and hindering economic growth. However, the establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in 2019 heralds a new era of opportunities for African youth. The AfCFTA promises to streamline trade, reduce bureaucratic hurdles, and create special economic zones, offering potential avenues for youth empowerment.

Recognizing the marginalized status of youth and women, the AfCFTA's Phase Two introduced the Protocol on Women and Youth in Trade, providing special protections to facilitate their participation. However, challenges persist in the implementation phase, compounded by governance issues and bureaucratic inefficiencies. Despite positive perceptions, scepticism remains regarding the AfCFTA's inclusivity and effectiveness.

This study examines the perceptions and experiences of African youth engaging with the AfCFTA. Through semi-structured interviews with researchers, advocacy officials, and youth- owned businesses, insights were gained into the complexities and barriers faced by young entrepreneurs. While participants expressed eagerness to leverage the AfCFTA, concerns about slow implementation, lack of trust in governments, and logistical challenges were prevalent.

Logistical hurdles, including lengthy shipping times and customs delays, hinder intra- continental trade. Entrepreneurs like Eweonam and Precious face daunting challenges in exporting their products within Africa due to infrastructural deficiencies and regulatory inconsistencies. Despite these obstacles, there is optimism among youth entrepreneurs like John, who see the AfCFTA as an opportunity to create sustainable businesses and drive economic growth.

To maximize the AfCFTA's potential, policy recommendations include prioritizing youth inclusion, enhancing infrastructure, streamlining customs procedures, and rebuilding trust between governments and citizens. Investing in education and upskilling is crucial, but equally important is creating enabling conditions for youth already engaged in trade.

In conclusion, the AfCFTA holds immense promise for Africa's youth, but its success hinges on addressing systemic challenges and ensuring meaningful youth participation. By prioritizing inclusivity and implementing targeted policies, African governments can unlock the full potential of their youthful demographic, paving the way for sustainable development and prosperity across the continent.

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