The 12th Summit of the African Union kicked off in Niamey, Niger on Sunday, launching the long-awaited-African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who currently chairs the African Union (AU), said during the summit's opening ceremony that the AfCFTA will reinforce African countries' negotiating position on the international stage.
"We must understand that we still have a long road and that industrial integration between African countries demands a great effort," El-Sisi told leaders and ministers from the 55 African Union countries attending the summit.
During his speech, the Egyptian president called on all African countries to ratify the AfCFTA agreement.
"The more countries sign and implement the agreement, the more the benefits which will be gained from of liberalizing trade for African peoples.".
"We also look forward to speed up the implementation of the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA) in its different phases due to its important role in closing gaps, which is needed by the African Economic Integration Project," El-Sisi said.
Chairman of African Union Commission Moussa Faki said during his remarks at the summit that the AfCFTA agreement was an old dream of the founding fathers of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) like Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
"We have a lot of determination and we own a lot of capabilities and natural resources that can put us in the lead in the world," El-Sisi said, adding that AfCFTA would achieve the aspiration of the African people to put an end to the issue of emigration.
According to an AFP report, with Nigeria and Benin's signatures, 54 of the 55 AU member countries have now signed onto the deal, with Eritrea the only holdout.
Around 4,500 delegates and guests – including 32 heads of state and more than 100 ministers – attended the AU summit in Niamey.
The agreement was formalised at the end of May when the agreement crossed the launch threshold, which required ratification by at least 22 countries.
Considered the largest since the creation of the World Trade Organisation in 1994, the AfCFTA seeks to triple the volume of intra-African trade from 17 percent to 60 percent by 2022.
The 55-nation trade block aims at reducing imports, improving productive and manufacturing capacities and supporting infrastructure projects in Africa.
President El-Sisi explained that despite the activation of AfCFTA, which will be one of the biggest trade zones of the world with a gross domestic product of $3.4 trillion, the member countries still have to acknowledge that there is a long way to go to implement the agreement and reap its benefits.
El-Sisi said that more effort is needed to liberalise trade in commodities and services, while providing the necessary insurance and creating a favourable investment climate.
He pointed at the importance of continued talks for the agreement's second phase, which intends to achieve the continent's goals for development and progress.
"We will work on reviewing a vision for the executive stage [of the agreement] to boost intraregional trade and remove customs and non-customs obstacles," he said.
He added that the member countries "will present the progress accomplished in complementary trade negotiations, the aim of which is to issue the necessary decisions to overcome hurdles which face us in our path to achieve the agreement's goals."