The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was officially launched on January 1, 2021, after months of delays due to the coronavirus pandemic. As a zone spanning 54 countries — home to a combined 1.2 billion consumers and $2.5tn of gross domestic product — the AfCFTA has been called the “most ambitious free trade project since the World Trade Organization itself”.

While full implementation of AfCFTA is expected to take several years, trade facilitation — which includes measures to reduce red tape and simplify customs procedures — through AfCFTA has the potential to boost income across Africa by $292bn by 2035, according to World Bank estimates. Indeed, if Africa’s percentage of global trade increased by just 1%, this would add a $70bn annual boost to the continent.

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AI-powered trade solutions

One firm hoping to play its part is Webb Fontaine. The Dubai-based developer of IT solutions announced plans last November to set up an artificial intelligence (AI) research and development (R&D) centre on the continent to focus exclusively on trade solutions.

Although Webb Fontaine already has several R&D teams worldwide, including in France, Switzerland, Armenia, Ukraine and the Philippines, the company’s chief executive is bullish on the potential of their first African centre.

“There is a huge amount of talent in Africa, [and] we strongly believe that African youth have the capacity and ambition to develop great IT solutions,” says Alioune Ciss, the company’s chief executive as of January. “We’ve seen this with development of technology in electronic payments and mobile money, which is developed much more in Africa than any other region,” he adds.

Previously, Mr Ciss spent 24 years at the UN’s Conference of Trade and Development (Unctad), coordinating IT projects in the Middle East and Africa, including a decade implementing Asycuda, a computer management system for foreign trade.

By developing GPS-based technology and AI solutions to isolate risks and streamline trade processes, such as tracking goods and regulations, the new centre aims to build on Webb Fontaine’s previous projects in countries such as Nigeria, Nepal, Bahrain, Benin and Panama.

Pan-African talent

While a single African location for the centre is yet to be determined, Mr Ciss intends to source talent from across the continent, looking at technology hubs such as Lagos, Nairobi and Accra, but also Francophone countries.

“Within this Covid environment, we realised that the location is not very important,” Mr Ciss says, adding that they are simply seeking talent with capacity in the “best” working environments.

Webb Fontaine will also be exploring possibilities to work together with entrepreneurs.

“We are looking more and more to see how we can work with start-up companies on different subjects around trade,” Mr Ciss says, adding that they have approached some electronic payments firms and will explore financing start-ups focused on trade in the future.

The key to AfCFTA 

“AfCFTA brings a lot in terms of new legislation and regulation,” says Mr Ciss, who adds that Webb Fontaine hopes to help implementation on a national and regional level.

But for Mr Ciss, the main issue is reconciling wariness between different trading partners across the continent, whether that be within countries or across borders. One major issue is so-called certificates of origin, which provide assurances of where goods have been produced and where there has been value added. “If you have real added transformation, you’ll be able to trade within countries without paying duties and taxes,” says Mr Ciss. If AfCFTA is to succeed in lifting 38 million people out of extreme poverty, solutions such as Webb Fontaine’s could play a key role.

“We believe if done properly, digitalising all the process will allow countries to gain trust in one another, which is the most important thing” says Mr Ciss.

This article first appeared in the February/March print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.