In an exclusive interview on the sidelines of this month’s meeting of Commonwealth Trade Ministers in London, GTR speaks to Rwanda’s minister of trade and industry, Jean Chrysostome Ngabitsinze. The minister discusses the opportunities presented by the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), how negotiations are progressing and what strategic areas of focus have emerged, as well as ongoing efforts to digitise intra-Commonwealth trade. 


GTR: How is implementation of the AfCFTA progressing, and what are the key areas of focus at the moment? 

Ngabitsinze: We have a huge opportunity for the continent of Africa, but to have the free trade area really operational we still need to agree on some tools, or protocols.  

We have completed negotiations on the protocols on competition, investment and intellectual property rights. Now we are negotiating on the protocols for digitalisation of trade, and women and youth in trade. These are the last ones to discuss. 

AfCFTA has also launched a programme called the Guided Trade Initiative, a pilot phase, to see how rules of origin can work. Eight countries including Rwanda are part of that, and we are trading coffee and tea. We have been able to harmonise the system around rules of origin, to have a single window where countries can upload and download what is requested. 

Of course, we still have challenges, many on the logistics side. One proposal we want to see under AfCFTA is having electronic certificates, because even now some are still hard copies. 


GTR: In terms of trade strategy, how could AfCFTA help strengthen African economies? 

Ngabitsinze: Industrialisation in Africa is the key. Today we are importing a lot, in terms of volume and value. We produce mainly raw materials and we are behind on the processing side.  

But we recently had an AfCFTA extraordinary meeting in Nairobi, and one of the subjects discussed was around industrialisation and – if possible – eliminating imports of used goods. With vehicles and clothes, for example, if we continue importing these goods we will never develop our own industries. 

We have an agenda for the textiles and garment industry, and for the automobile industry. We need to keep having discussions around local content requirements, so for example, with car assembly, how much we contribute in terms of raw materials.  

We understand the need to have new brands, African brands, made in Africa, and these are key discussions we are having now under the AfCFTA. 


GTR: Do you also expect agricultural commodities to play an important role in these talks? 

Ngabitsinze: More than 80% of products we are trading are coming from agriculture, but in terms of strategy the trade side is inefficient. We still import a lot of products, many processed goods but also grains, and what we’ve seen with the Russia war is that some countries suffered around wheat and maize. What we have proposed is a harmonised way of trading agriculture products in order to avoid shortages. 

You might see a shortage of maize in East Africa, then when you go to southern Africa – Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe – you have a surplus. But there is no model to tell each other, and on the macroeconomic side, the fiscal regimes are really different. 

What we propose is to reduce tariffs around agriculture products, see if it is possible even to put them to zero, and create a commodity exchange module at the African continental level. This is an urgent sector to develop quickly in order to have food security and strong business. We need policies and strategies, and an implementable roadmap, and Rwanda is championing that. 


GTR: You’re currently meeting with trade ministers from across the Commonwealth. What are attendees hoping to achieve, for instance around digitisation of trade? 

Ngabitsinze: The Commonwealth covers almost 40% of countries, and the volume and value of trade is huge. But we are so different in terms of location. The cost of trade is high because of limitations on logistics, the high cost of transportation, the high cost of contracts.  

We hope that by introducing digital tools, we can help communities in the Commonwealth be nearer to each other. We need to come up with a strategy to implement together, to reduce that distance and reduce the cost of doing business.