I attended this AU meeting from 15-17 Oct in Dakar. The 1st Ecommerce conference had been held in Nairobi in July last year. The aim of the meeting was to collect information on the digital economy in Africa. The Heads of State meeting in January 2020 under the chairmanship of President Ramaphosa will be presented with a digital economy strategy by the AU Secretariat. There is an urgency therefore to explore what exactly is going on throughout the Continent. In addition, the AU should decide if ecommerce will be included in the “Phase 2” negotiations which officially opened after the 54 Member States signed the agreement to create the AfCFTA (African Continental Free Trade Area). The AU is well aware that “ecommerce will be the bloodstream of trade for Africa, nationally, regionally, continentally and globally” whether or not ecommerce becomes a separate protocol to the Phase 2 negotiations, but they would prefer that ecommerce is included in order to provide an African response to the ongoing global negotiations at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). More about the AfCFTA and WTO in other articles below.
Much of the 3 days of the Conference were taken up with discussions on national approaches to the digital economy. Some countries (lead by Rwanda) have taken a holistic approach towards developing the digital economy as a central part in their economic development; others like Egypt, have adopted specific national strategies designed to foster ecommerce. Others are looking at 4IR (like the SA).
I chaired a session of young entrepreneurs from 6 countries (Senegal, Equatorial Guinea, DRC, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Angola) which gave the regulators real-time experience of how young entrepreneurs were growing their businesses despite many challenges. The 6 businesses, which included a pay-gateway, a courier service, an initiative for rural women, were also generating significant employment. The panel attracted a lot of interest and questions on how to skill and stimulate young entrepreneurs.
The other panel that attracted vigorous debate, but in the form of a strong clash, was that dealing with the WTO trade negotiations. The civic society group, Our World is Not for Sale, represented by an American, Deborah James, gave a slide presentation on why the present WTO JSI negotiations on ecommerce are bad for Africa. Her argument went that the WTO proposals have been concocted by the GAAFAs to consolidate their power, give them control over data and allow them avoid taxation. The South Africa representative fully agreed with this analysis, and stressed that Africa is not represented. In the view of SA more African countries need to be involved (so far only Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Kenya sit on the WTO ecommerce negotiations – SA is absent); SA also feels that the “moratorium” must be rejected because it only favours the developed countries, and that control of data has to be national. Ms Prudence Sebahizi of the AU stressed that Africa under the AfCFTA will have its own table and can devise its own menu. Two papers were circulated – by Mr Munu from the Economic Policy Research Centre and by Ms James. Both very anti-WTO. The Kenyan representative then strongly criticized SA, pointing out that if it had something to say it should join the JSI Committee and not carp from the sidelines or bully the poorer nations. The Kenyans questioned the research put forward by SA and Ms James; and the wisdom of encouraging countries to control data.