What do FTAs mean for African women? A critical look into the African Continental Free Trade Area

15 December 2020 by GRAIN

The recently ratified African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) looms over Africa. An initiative of the African Union, this mega free trade deal aims to consolidate African markets, boost trade between African countries, and ultimately encourage and reinforce regional integration. The proponents of AfCFTA say it will transform the continent into an economic powerhouse. But, let’s focus on just one category of the population, one that is pre-eminent in agriculture: what does this trade deal mean for African women and their role in the continent’s food production and trade?

 Free trade deals are not new to Africa

The AfCFTA pursues the same goals of trade deals that African countries have engaged with in recent decades, but unfolds them now on a much broader scale . It is the continental extension of a corporate driven trade agenda previously imposed on distinct African blocs through numerous trade and investment deals and processes.

In 2000, the United States approved and launched the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, a unilateral policy that allows Sub-Saharan African nations duty-free access to the US market. This duty-free access extended to over 6000 items including textiles, apparel, footwear, foods, flowers and other products. A selected group of African countries were considered eligible depending on their compliance with US requirements. [1] (see Annex 1: AGOA eligibility requirements)

However, twenty years after its launch, AGOA has had little success. Only three African countries – Angola, South Africa and Nigeria – have been fully integrated to this scheme. AGOA exports from Africa to the US have declined rather than grown, from $68.2 billion in 2011 to $23.2 billion in 2014. [2] But not ready to call it a day, the Trump administration is currently moving into a new phase of bilateral trade deals with sub-Saharan Africa, and it has started with Kenya. Pundits say that the US-Kenya deal will be modelled on the very harsh and hotly contested US-Morocco deal.

As for Europe, ever since independence, the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries collectively dealt with the European Union under framework agreements. First was the Yaounde Declaration followed by the Lome Conventions I-IV and the Cotonou Partnership Agreement. In sub-Saharan Africa, the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) have been organised along sub-regional fault lines. However, only interim agreements have been finalised so far and few of them are operational.

The European Free Trade Association (EFTA) – uniting Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein – has also pushed its own FTAs with African partners. These are very much modelled on the comprehensive FTAs that other Western powers like the US and EU favour.

Japan and China, on the other hand, have not negotiated trade deals per se in Africa. They have nonetheless promoted specific investment and aid agreements with individual African countries and the African sub-regional blocs.

Within Africa itself, formal internal trade has been historically low these past decades, accounting for only 2 per cent of the total value of imports and exports. This is precisely what the African CFTA aims to address. [3]

Teenage girl sorting green leafy vegetables in Gweri Sub-county, Soroti district, Uganda; Photo credit: Nobert Petro Kalule

 Women and trade in Africa: impacts so far

It is important to bear in mind that a large part of trade within Africa, both within countries and across borders, is informal. Figures are hard to come by but the general picture is that it accounts for 30-40% of trade within Africa. [4] In countries like South Africa, where 40 percent of people working in trade are informal, almost 70 percent of this exchange is in food trade. [5] The trend is similar for the rest of the continent: a big part of this trade deals with food and other agricultural products. Women are the main group concerned, who, in rural areas, also contribute close to 60 percent of the labour force in agriculture and up to 80 percent in total food production. (See Box 1: Women in agriculture in Africa)

BOX 1: Women in agriculture in Africa

Women’s time-use in agriculture varies by crop, production cycles, age and ethnic groups but weeding and harvesting are generally women’s duties and also includes a higher proportion of unpaid household responsibilities related to preparing food and collecting fuel and water. Their participation in rural labour markets varies across regions, but invariably, women are still mostly unpaid, seasonal and part-time workers who are often times paid less than men for the same amount of work. Their presence is highly registered in the fruit, vegetable and cut-flower export sector.

Their activities in the sector typically include producing agricultural crops, tending animals, processing and preparing food, working for wages in agricultural or other rural enterprises, collecting fuel and water, engaging in trade and marketing, caring for family members and maintaining their homes. Most importantly though, is the critical and central role that women play in African seed systems. Women are recognized as the main custodians of seed as they manage the preservation, diversity, selection and storage of seed in most if not all African communities. Many of these activities are not defined as “economically active employment” in national accounts but they are essential to the well-being of rural households. [6]

The track record of past FTAs in regard to the position of women, addressing their concerns in these processes and subsequent benefits have not been good at all. In fact, feminist critiques of free trade and investment policies and agreements in other regions mesh very strongly with the experiences in Africa. [7] Concretely, the key issues include the following:

Covid-19 has presented government’s across sub-Saharan Africa with the long-awaited pretext to crackdown on informal vendors, regardless that women working in the informal sector provide essential services to their families and communities.

Uganda Police, Local Defense Unit (LDU) and the army in Kampala enforcing a presidential directive to ban public transport and all non-food markets as a means to contain the spread of Coronavirus. Photo credit: Kampala Dispatch

Fruit vendors are chased off the streets of Kampala, Uganda. Photo credit: Badru Katumba/AFP via Getty Images

Finally, we must recognise and understand the link between free trade and investments agreements, women and militarisation in Africa. Is it by coincidence that the Trump administration is offering its first African FTA to Kenya, the US government’s key partner on counterterrorism in the region? [16]

 Will the AfCFTA be any different?

The AfCFTA as a free trade agreement came into force on 30 May 2019, but the business of trading Market activities
Buying and selling of financial instruments such as shares, futures, derivatives, options, and warrants conducted in the hope of making a short-term profit.
under the AfCFTA will only begin on 1 June 2020. Confusingly, the negotiation process is still ongoing. Tariff offers have not yet been negotiated and the chapters on services, intellectual property and investment are scheduled to be drawn up later in 2020.

The AfCFTA that has come into force is therefore only a skeleton of what it will be, since the actual substance of the agreement is yet to be agreed upon or finalised. But we do know that expectations are high for AfCFTA to deliver a solid mechanism of trade and investment liberalisation within Africa along the lines seen in other FTAs up to now. These will be tailored to each states’ capacities, for example on tariffs, but advancing a coherent model. The EU is already talking about negotiating a bloc to bloc deal with the AfCFTA once it is complete.

Agriculture and food production– which represents over 55 percent of Africa’s labour force and is the biggest employer of women- is under AfCFTA’s radar. Reason for which AfCFTA wants to open the region’s borders. This would facilitate the dumping of commodities Commodities The goods exchanged on the commodities market, traditionally raw materials such as metals and fuels, and cereals. along product-by-product tariff lines that have yet to be agreed. It is also expected to open borders to the free flow of workers, although experience from previous arrangements such as the East African Common Market protocol would suggest that this will only be available for highly skilled workers, not the vast majority of women. [17] Worryingly, it will harmonise intellectual property schemes, probably along the lines of UPOV as far as seeds are concerned.

In much of Africa, not only are women the majority of the informal cross border traders, but their trade is mainly in textiles, agricultural products, and consumables which they do as individuals on mainly a weekly basis. They deal in small quantities of goods which makes their border crossing more frequent and ultimately very expensive. [18] They have to deal with sexual abuse, lack of knowledge about trade regulations and procedures, limited market information and physical vulnerability. [19] The AfCFTA, with its single minded concern with the trade of corporations, will do nothing to help these women.

Another component of the AfCFTA with important impact on women is the Special Economic Arrangements. As expected, the AfCFTA text makes a special provision for state parties establishing special economic arrangements or zones in order to accelerate “development.” But how this will play out remains to be seen but, given the experience with such arrangements around the world, it can’t be less than detrimental to women.


Looking at the history of trade deals in Africa, and struggles around them over the last 30 years, one has to ask: have they strengthened the role of women in society? Have they uplifted women economically, socially, culturally, politically? Do these deals offer good jobs that help women provide for their families, enjoy full health and reproductive rights? And, more broadly, do they support rather than suppress the informal markets that make up 60% of the continent’s economic fabric?

They fail on all these fronts. Actions speak louder than words, and the results of FTAs on the ground betray lip-service from their sponsors to women and other marginalised sectors. The neoliberal core of these trade regimes is omnipresent and in action is a steam-roller driven by the corporate sector. We need a new approach to trade, new strategies based on radically different values altogether: sustainable, collective, de-colonial and not patriarchal, acknowledging and addressing the needs and aspirations of African Peoples.

Download PDF version:https://grain.org/system/articles/pdfs/000/006/496/original/AfCFTA%20GRAIN%20PDF%20version.pdf?1594229383

Source: GRAIN


[1Kennedy Senelwa, “East Africa exports to the US hit $1bn in the year to September 2018”, The East African, 31 December 2018, https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/business/East-Africa-exports-to-the-US-hit--1bn-in-the-year-to-September/2560-4914404-12mqfte/index.html

[2Timothy Kalyegira, “What failure of AGOA says about Africans”, Daily Monitor, 24 May 2015, https://www.monitor.co.ug/OpEd/Commentary/failure-AGOA-Africans/689364-2727256-i5vcix/index.html

[4Joachim Jarrreau, et al. “Lifting the lid on the black box of informal trade in Africa,” The Conversation, September 2018: https://theconversation.com/lifting-the-lid-on-the-black-box-of-informal-trade-in-africa-102867

[5“Informal trade may hold the key to food security”, Fin24, 20 Oct 2018, https://www.fin24.com/Opinion/informal-trade-may-hold-the-key-to-food-security-20181017

[6GRAIN and AFSA, “The real seed producers”, 2018, https://grain.org/e/6035

[7A good summary from Latin America is provided by Graciela Rodríguez, “Impacts du libre-échange sur les femmes dans un monde globalisé”, in Alternatives sud, vol. 24, 2017, pp. 147-165. From Asia, please see the excellent materials from Asia-Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development at https://apwld.org/tag/trade-liberalization/

[8See bilaterals.org website for many accounts, and particularly bilaterals.org, BIOTHAI and GRAIN, “Fighting FTAs”, 2008, https://www.bilaterals.org/fightingFTA-en-Hi.pdf

[9See GRAIN, “Trade agreements privatising biodiversity outside the WTO: 2018 update”, https://grain.org/e/6030. UPOV is a French acronym for Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties, a type of patent regime for seeds.

[10See GRAIN and AFSA, “Th real seed producers”, 2019, https://grain.org/e/6035

[11AFTINET, “293 community Groups Call on World Trade Organization to stop other negotiations and focus on access to life-saving medical supplies”, 20 April 2020, http://aftinet.org.au/cms/node/1859

[12See for example Eric Toussaint et al., “South Africa’s Special Economic Zones in Global Context,” ACCEDE, September 2019: https://accede.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/ACCEDE%20&%20FES%20Policy%20Working%20Paper%20No.1_WEB.pdf

[13See GRAIN, “Supermarkets out of Africa! Food systems across the continent are doing just fine without them”, November 2018, https://grain.org/e/6042

[14See RADD, Muyissi Environnment, Culture Radio, Natural Resource Women Platform, GRAIN and WRM “Breaking the silence: Industrial oil palm and rubber plantations bring harassment, sexual violence and abuse against women,” March 2019: https://grain.org/e/6164

[15“Tanzania’s horticulture industry gets new lease of life”, The Citizen, 14 April 2020, https://www.thecitizen.co.tz/news/business/Horticulture-gets-new-lease-of-life/1840434-5523522-exursez/index.html

[16Claire Felter, “What would a US-Kenya trade deal mean?”, Council on Foreign Relations, 21 Feb 2020, https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/what-would-us-kenya-trade-deal-mean. From 2002-2017, US counterterrorism assistance spending in Africa was highest in Kenya ($9.2bn). See Stimson Study Group on Counterterrorism Spending, May 2018, https://www.stimson.org/wp-content/files/file-attachments/CT_Spending_Report_0.pdf

[17SEATINI Uganda, “Free movement of workers in the East African Community: Implications for youth employment in Uganda”, 2014, https://www.seatiniuganda.org/publications/research/35-free-movement-of-workers/file.html

[18EASSI, “Women informal cross border traders: Opportunities and challenges in the East African Community”, 2012, https://eassi.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Women-Informal-Cross-Border-Traders-Opportunities-and-Challenges-in-the-EAC-Action-research-2012.pdf

[19United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, “Borderline: Women in informal cross-border trade in Malawi, the United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia”, 2019, https://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditc2018d3_en.pdf
Teenage girl sorting green leafy vegetables in Gweri Sub-county, Soroti district, Uganda; Photo credit: Nobert Petro Kalule




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