Africa's private sector moves towards strengthening continental economic relations, reports Gamal Nkrumah
Africa's economic growth forecast for 2004 is better than many had anticipated. That, however, is not as much a cause for celebration as it is an opportunity for more political and economic reform. The continent still suffers from serious economic woes, not least the over-reliance on the export of raw materials -- mainly minerals and agricultural produce. A host of logistical, financial and political constraints hinder the enhancement of trading opportunities among African countries. This was the underlying message circulating among delegates at the Inter-Africa 2004 African Chambers of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture Conference held in Alexandria from 6-9 December.
The conference was accompanied by a trade fair with participants taking the opportunity to sample some of the exhibits displayed in the pavilions set up in the extensive grounds of Alexandria's Hilton Green Plaza Hotel.
In an opening session jointly chaired by Egypt's Minister of Economy Youssef Boutros-Ghali and Minister of Foreign Trade Rashid Mohamed Rashid, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif delivered the keynote address to visiting African dignitaries at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Many of the dignitaries were hugely impressed by the conference. "The organisation of the conference was perfect. I congratulate the Egyptian Federation which did a splendid job. The Egyptian government, too, played its part. I am very grateful that they gave us their utmost attention -- no less than six Egyptian cabinet ministers participated in the conference," national chairman of the Kenyan National Chamber of Commerce and Industry, David Githere, told Al- Ahram Weekly.
The conference, co-sponsored by the Egyptian government and the Egyptian Federation, took place under the auspices of the African Union (AU) and in line with the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD). Business people, diplomats and the media were well-represented at the conference.
Heavily reliant on primary industries, Africa has understandably found it difficult to keep its footing in the shifting sands of the new world order. In order to rectify the situation, the continent needs a comprehensive plan, as opposed to uncontested wish lists. Reaching this conclusion, the conference's delegates from 46 countries issued a final communiqué which reflected the determination to infuse the continent's business climate with a new dynamism -- the primary focus being to boost inter-African trade, a crucial factor in the development of economic relations.
Delegates noted that the continent's economic woes do not have to be fixed all at once, but that a credible start needs to be made. Poverty and economic insecurity was identified as the greatest barrier to increased inter-African trade. Also, the upgrading of infrastructure, facilities and services would further boost inter-African trade.
In an unprecedented show of enthusiasm for the improvement of economic development, ministers and top officials from the host nation mingled with the African delegates. Among the Egyptian ministers present were the Minister of Housing, Utilities and Urban Communities Mohamed Ibrahim Soliman, and Minister of Transport Essam Sharaf.
Also present were Ahmed El-Leithi, minister of agriculture and land reclamation; Hassan Ahmed Younis, minister of electricity and energy; Awad Tageddin, minister of health and population; Amr Ezzat Salama, minister of higher education and scientific research; Ahmed El-Maghrabi, minister of tourism; Faiza Abul-Naga, minister of international cooperation; and Farouk El-Oukda, Egypt's Central Bank governor.
The ministers chaired different sessions and delivered papers at the three-day conference. "It was a very productive meeting. We reached a number of agreements. The main objective achieved is to start a process leading to the establishment of a confederation chamber of agriculture, industry and commerce," Tarah Shaanika,
chief executive officer of the Namibian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and spokesperson for the Southern African region at the conference (SADC).
"This conference provided plenty of opportunities for African chambers of commerce to interact with each other, to do business, to network and to investigate trade opportunities," Shaanika said. "We want to increase inter-African trade. We are working in the framework of NEPAD. We will provide support for NEPAD."
However, Shaanika conceded that foreigners still control much of Africa's economy and trade. "We cannot keep foreigners out. Indeed, it is not in our interest to do so. We welcome foreign direct investment (FDI), but what we also want is for Africans to have ownership and control of our natural resources. We also want to ensure that our resources are exploited for the benefit of our people."
He added that a "proper exploitation of the continent's resources should entail providing employment and income-generating opportunities, adding value to African raw materials instead of exporting raw materials." Shaanika explained that there was a growing determination in Africa to bolster inter- African trade. "It is a process owned by all African countries," he said. Participants at the Alexandria conference set up a committee of six countries -- one for each of the continent's five regions as designated by the AU, plus the host nation Egypt. The other five representative states were: South Africa, representing southern Africa; Uganda representing East Africa; Togo representing West Africa; Chad representing Central Africa; and Morocco representing North Africa.
"Egypt was the first country to take the initiative and make a financial and logistical contribution to kickstart the initiative," Shaanika noted.
Other delegates were more concerned with the economic challenges facing Africa. "Communications are a very serious problem. Shipping and freight is another problem that seriously hampers trade between African countries," Joy Ndungutse told the Weekly. Ndungutse, a member of the Rwanda Chamber of Commerce complained that the level of women participation at the conference was low. She said that there are very few women in authority positions in the trade, economic and commercial sectors of Africa. "Everywhere you go, there is a man waiting for you to clinch a deal with. You rarely find women... We certainly need more women participating in industry and trade in Africa," she stressed.
Ndungutse also pointed out that there are many practical problems hindering the development of trade between African countries. She said that the nature of the problem differs from one part of the continent to another. But, she added that certain problems are continent-wide. These, she said, include financial and logistical problems.
"To give you a practical example, there is no direct shipping line between Egyptian ports and Mombasa, Kenya, and Dar Al-Salam, Tanzania. We conduct most of our foreign trade via the ports of Mombasa and Dar Al-Salam.