INTERVIEW: A journey of African integration

Mona Sewilam, Friday 24 Jan 2020

Secretary-General of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa Chileshe Kapwepwe talks about the organisation’s efforts to deepen African economic integration to Mona Sewilam

Chileshe Kapwepwe
Chileshe Kapwepwe

The dream and vision of the great founding fathers of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) led to the formation of regional economic communities in Africa including the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) and others.

COMESA’s strategy can be summed up in the phrase “economic prosperity through regional integration”. In late 2019, COMESA celebrated the 25th anniversary of its birth, and Egypt will host the next COMESA Summit of Heads of State and Government in 2020.

The realisation of this dream began with establishing the OAU in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in 1963. The organisation was mainly focused on promoting unity and solidarity and eradicating all forms of colonialism from Africa. But it did not overlook issues pertaining to African integration.

The OAU was then replaced by the African Union (AU) that was officially launched in Durban in South Africa in 2002. The AU has built on the work of the OAU and been guided by the vision of “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.”

In May 1963, 32 independent African states were members of the OAU, and currently the AU includes 55 member states.

COMESA traces its genesis to the mid-1960s. The idea of regional economic cooperation and integration received considerable support during the post-independence period in most of Africa. There was a prevailing optimistic mood connected to the Pan-African vision for an Africa that should be united, free, and in control of its own destiny.

The OAU’s 1980-2000 Lagos Plan of Action for the Development of Africa and the 1991 treaty establishing the African Economic Community (AEC), more popularly known as the Abuja Treaty, proposed the creation and strengthening of regional economic communities. The aim was to set up the AEC and provide the basis for wider African integration, with a view to regional and eventual continental integration.

Accordingly, the Preferential Trade Area for Eastern and Southern Africa existed from 1981, and COMESA was formed in December 1994 to replace it. The COMESA secretariat is based in the Zambian capital Lusaka, and the population of the member states of COMESA currently exceeds 560 million people, which is almost half of Africa’s population. This renders COMESA the biggest regional economic community providing access to the largest market for trade and investment in Africa.

COMESA is one of the eight Regional Economic Communities (RECs) recognised by the African Union. The RECs also include the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD), the East African Community (EAC), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The RECs are closely integrated with the AU’s work and are building blocks for the AU and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), whose agreement entered into force in 2019.

COMESA includes 21 member states: Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Eswatini, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, the Seychelles, Sudan, Somalia, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Egypt, which currently holds the AU’s rotating chairmanship, joined COMESA in 1998.

Zambian-born Chileshe Kapwepwe is the first woman secretary-general of COMESA, and she spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly about the organisation’s efforts to deepen African economic integration and widen cooperation, as well Egypt’s role and participation in COMESA programmes.


You were selected as secretary-general of COMESA in 2018 after a competitive process, and you are the first woman to hold this position. How is COMESA working on empowering women in Africa?

COMESA has legal and policy frameworks, structures, programmes and projects to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. Its treaty, gender policy, and other frameworks provide guides on various measures to address gender inequalities and women’s empowerment across sectors. COMESA uses a twin-track approach: gender mainstreaming and stand-alone initiatives to support women. Its treaty spells out that sustainable development cannot be realised without the full and effective participation of women in the regional development agenda.

The 50 Million African Women Speak (50MAWS) project is the fruit of a partnership between three RECs: COMESA, the East African Community (EAC) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The project is focused on empowering African women and getting them involved in business, mentoring, and inspiring each other. Are you succeeding in providing a one-stop shop for their specific information needs and improving their quality of life?

The project has completed the design of the information and networking platform for women. Both the web portal ( and the digital networking app (50MAWSP) for mobile devices are now operational. The platform was launched during the Global Gender Summit in Kigali, Rwanda in 2019. The launch garnered and was exposed to more than 2.7 million social-media users.

The platform enables women to access information on various business and social services, mentorship, and market access and to network with one another to share experiences. From the date of the launch, close to 2,000 women have registered on the platform. National and regional launches of the platform, including outreach and publicity activities, will be undertaken to attract women and service providers. Our emphasis going forward will be to strengthen the availability of dynamic content on the platform and training on how to use it working with project country teams in all the 38 participating member/partner states.

Africa has moved from being referred to as the “dark continent” and the “heart of darkness” to being seen as the “golden continent” and an “emerging market”. In your view, what do Africans need to do to benefit from Africa’s abundant opportunities and emerging markets?

We need to create an integrated market that can attract investment opportunities both for trade in goods and services. We need to upscale skills levels to create a digitally empowered future group of young people to be the key resources for production decisions under the Fourth Industrial Revolution. And we need to promote political stability, peace, and good governance and ensure the protection of property rights. There is a need to create the conditions for the greater inward investments needed for employment creation, economic growth, and the eradication of poverty.

Structural and operational constraints now restrict the growth and expansion of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) in the COMESA region. How are you enhancing intra-COMESA trade through MSME development?

The vision of the COMESA MSME policy is a developed, vibrant, and inclusive MSME sector which, through increased competitiveness and value-added output, will vastly increase intra-COMESA trade and Africa’s share in global trade to at least eight per cent by 2030. The goal is to stimulate economic development, accelerate job creation, create wealth, and rapidly reduce poverty in the COMESA region.

The COMESA's small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) policy has been domesticated in a number of member states upon demand such as Madagascar, Comoros and Djibouti among others, and this process is ongoing. Under the Regional Enterprise Competitiveness and Access to Markets Programme (RECAMP), operational in 2020, the aim is to promote growth of SMEs in the identified value chains, namely in horticulture, leather and leather products, and agro-processing. Additionally, the cassava value chain has been implemented in member states such as Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda and Kenya, and there are signs of success as regards value addition.

Should the African countries be focusing first on industrialisation, product diversification, and producing finished, semi-finished or semi-processed goods, instead of relying mainly on exporting and importing raw materials to one another?

To achieve this, the COMESA member states adopted the COMESA Industrial Strategy and Action Plan in 2017 for economic transformation in the region. The industrialisation of the COMESA countries depends theoretically on dynamic interactions between three types of factors: peace and security; macroeconomic stability; and the rational use of economic resources.

Economic resources — natural, human, financial and technical — should be used on the basis of dynamic, not static, comparative advantages in national economic development. There is no doubt, therefore, that natural and human resources are more important for industrialisation. From that perspective, two models of industrialisation have been recommended for our region; natural resource-based industrialisation and human resource-based industrialisation. Applying one of these depends on the specificity of each country.

When do you think we will see trading in high-quality, finished, and diversified products bearing the label “Made in Africa”?

The major challenge facing the COMESA region is that there is low trade in locally manufactured products. This works against the spirit of regional integration and negatively impacts job creation and economic growth. One key intervention area in the COMESA Industrial Strategy relates to enhancing intra- and inter-regional trade in inputs and semi-processed and manufactured products, and work is in progress here.

The COMESA Free Trade Area (FTA) was established in 2000. When would you say that COMESA will see the full participation of all its 21 member states in the COMESA FTA?

COMESA trade liberalisation started with a programme of tariff reductions in 1984 under the Preferential Trade Area for Eastern and Southern Africa. A new programme of tariff reductions under COMESA started in 1994 with the objective of attaining the Free Trade Area (FTA) in 2000. Indeed, the FTA was established in October 2000 with nine founding member states i.e., Djibouti, Egypt, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Sudan, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Other member states joined the FTA with Burundi and Rwanda joining in 2004, Libya and Comoros in 2006, the Seychelles in 2009 and Uganda in 2014.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) has confirmed that the customs duties on COMESA originating products have been reduced to zero per cent in accordance with its three-year phase-down programme. Once approved, the tariff schedule will be published and shared with the member states through the secretariat most probably during the first quarter of 2020. In 2019, Tunisia decided to join the COMESA FTA at 100 per cent tariff liberalisation and is expected to deposit the FTA instruments before the end of the first quarter of 2020.

 The rest of the non-FTA member states have been preparing to join the FTA and a number of activities have been undertaken to this effect. Based on the updates COMESA has been receiving, we expect all COMESA member states to be implementing the FTA within 2-3 years.

Intra-regional trade in Africa is a mere 15 per cent, compared to around 47 per cent in America, 61 per cent in Asia, and 67 per cent in Europe, according to United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) data for 2015 to 2017. Does COMESA regard having an e-commerce platform as an effective way of boosting intra-African trade?

The COMESA Digital Free Trade Area (DFTA) is all about empowering traders to engage in cross-border trade using information and communication technology (ICT) as a tool to minimise physical barriers. The DFTA works on providing traders with the necessary digital tools and infrastructure they need for the enhancement of intra-trade and global trade. DFTA has three thrusts, namely e-trade, e-logistics, and e-legislation, and work is in progress here too.

Digital trade will promote e-commerce by providing an online platform for the COMESA region’s traders to trade online. This platform will enable trade within the COMESA FTA inclusive of all tax concessions, making it an online market for the COMESA region. Digital logistics can help drive a differentiated customer experience and highly optimised and efficient operations, and they use ICT as a tool to improve the commercial activity of transporting goods to customers.

Some of the instruments here would be the COMESA e-certificate of origin and standardised customs procedures, etc. Digital legislation will also address the readiness of laws in member states to cater for digital transactions. Most of these instruments are at an advanced stage of development.

The COMESA Yellow Card Scheme is currently operational, and the countries in which it is recognized as valid insurance cover are twelve COMESA member countries i.e., Burundi, Djibouti, DR Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. This is apart from Tanzania which is a non-COMESA member state. How successful has the scheme been?

The COMESA Yellow Card Scheme is also known as Regional Third Party Motor Vehicle Insurance. It is the most successful and widely implemented COMESA transport and transit facilitation instrument. The scheme has been implemented in 13 COMESA and non-COMESA countries. The Yellow Card is digital, and currently over 200 insurance companies are participating in the operations. On a daily basis, thousands of vehicles use the Yellow Card to travel in the region. We are also working with other COMESA and non-COMESA countries such as Egypt, Somalia, Mozambique and Angola to implement the scheme.

How do you deal with the issue of the overlapping membership of various countries in the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and to what extent does this limit their full attention and commitment to COMESA aims and objectives?

COMESA currently has 21 member states, out of which four are members of the East African Community (EAC) and eight are members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The three RECs are operating at various stages of development, with the most advanced in terms of regional integration being the EAC, which is a customs union. This is followed by COMESA, which is largely a free trade area (FTA), although it launched its customs union in 2009 with only a few countries joining. The SADC is currently a FTA, although there is a very strong and integrated Southern African Customs Union (SACU) within this region.

Each REC is unique in its main area of focus, with COMESA focusing more on trade liberalisation, SADC on industrialisation, and EAC on political integration incorporating all stages of integration. This means that out of the member states experiencing the overlaps, each has unique benefits it derives from each REC. COMESA embraces the principle of a “variable geometry” that allows member states to implement various programmes at different stages.

COMESA is a FTA, and all its overlapping member states have at least attained FTA status, so the overlaps create a larger market for them. In implementing COMESA programmes, there is also close coordination between the EAC and the SADC. Also, most of the programmes and instruments of COMESA, the EAC, and the SADC are aligned. The Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) between the three previous RECs is expected to solve the overlapping membership problem when it enters into force.

COMESA is the only REC that has experienced the departure of five former member states i.e., Angola, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Tanzania, while five new ones have also joined the bloc i.e., Egypt, Libya, the Seychelles, Somalia and Tunisia. Somalia which joined COMESA in 2018 was a former member of the Preferential Trade Area for Eastern and Southern Africa, a precursor of COMESA. How would you explain this?

Article 191 of the COMESA Treaty recognises that membership in the organisation is voluntary and thus provides for the withdrawal of membership on notification to the secretary-general. There were political and economic issues and other considerations that were at play in the late 1990s and the period from 2000 to 2005 that led to the five countries you have referred to making sovereign decisions to withdraw their membership in COMESA.

On the other hand, Article 1(4) of the COMESA Treaty extends the eligibility of COMESA membership to immediate neighbours of COMESA member states on application. This is the provision that has resulted in the admission of additional member states to the COMESA family. A decision to join a REC comes with obligations, and the country concerned also assesses the benefits from such membership. The new member states must have concluded that the benefits of being members of COMESA were greater than the associated costs. Somalia was previously part of the Preferential Trade Area for Eastern and Southern Africa.

How would you describe Egypt’s participation in COMESA programmes?

On gender and social affairs, Egypt is one of the member states that always prepares its annual progress report on the status of the implementation of programmes on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GEWE), as well as providing progress towards the attainment of agreed targets and goals on GEWE. In addition, Egypt is participating in the implementation of the previously-mentioned 50 Million African Women Speak (50MAWS) project.

Additionally, the COMESA Regional Investment Agency (RIA) is domiciled in Cairo. This plays a pivotal role in facilitating the inflow of foreign direct investment (FDI) together with cross-border investment in the region. The RIA also facilitates business-to-business linkages both internally and externally, as well as trade fairs and investment roadshows among other things.

COMESA took part in observing Egypt’s presidential elections in 2018. How is this relevant to Article 3(d) of the COMESA Treaty, which provides that COMESA cooperates in the promotion of peace, security, and stability among member states in order to enhance economic development in the region?

The secretariat supports the holding of democratic elections in member states as a direct response to decisions of the COMESA ministers of foreign affairs. During their 11th meeting held in Lilongwe, Malawi, in October 2011, the ministers noted the rising levels of violence, dissatisfaction, and complaints following the outcomes of elections with some resulting in the loss of life. The ministers made several key decisions, including calling on member states to invite COMESA to observe elections, as well as calling on COMESA to deploy the COMESA Committee of Elders on pre-election assessment missions to various countries and to utilise them as leaders of COMESA electoral observer missions. The observer missions are therefore done to support the consolidation of democracy and peace in the region.

As much as possible, COMESA seeks joint observer missions. For example, in March 2018, COMESA and the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) launched a successful joint observer mission for the Egyptian presidential elections. A joint mission allows COMESA to cover more ground, and in the case of Egypt the mission was able to observe the elections in 10 governorates. Since 2006, COMESA has observed over 25 elections upon invitation by COMESA member states. 

 What are the details of the next COMESA Summit of Heads of State and Government?

The theme of the next COMESA Summit to be held in Egypt in 2020 will be communicated once consultations have been completed.

What are the highlights of the 2020 COMESA work programme?

In order to attain the vision of becoming a fully integrated, internationally competitive regional economic community with high standards of living for all its people and ready to merge into an African Economic Community (AEC), COMESA will continue to implement its five-year Strategic Plan using annual work plans. For 2020, the thrust will be: market integration aiming to facilitate the utilisation of trade opportunities; addressing supply-side constraints, particularly in the area of energy; and reinforcing productive integration building on the industrialisation strategy and agriculture programmes.

The main objective will be to help COMESA member states to exploit the identified opportunities for trade and investment to their benefit.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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