Tralac – An Agenda for the AfCFTA Protocol on E-Commerce

E-commerce has been included in the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) through a decision of the African Union Heads of State and Government Assembly in February 2020[1] and will be integrated through a third phase of negotiations. This decision could potentially lead to expanded market space for e-commerce players on the continent. Over 260 e-commerce start-ups were operating in Africa in 2017, and in 2020, the International Trade Centre identified 630 B2C e-commerce marketplaces operating on the continent. These players would also include businesses and institutions which use e-commerce channels.

Rates of use of e-commerce channels vary across the continent – 1 per cent of Africa’s e-commerce marketplaces are responsible for 60 per cent of the marketplace traffic on the whole continent, while 11 per cent of the marketplace websites enable financial transactions. 89 per cent of platforms are classified sites with sales made offline. On the UNCTAD B2C e-commerce index. in 2018, three countries alone accounted for 50 per cent of active online shoppers in Africa[2]. It is important to highlight that measurements of e-commerce in Africa tend to focus on trade in physical goods through electronic channels within national economies. For a more robust picture, it would be necessary to cover the trade of person-supplied services (such as tutoring or design), as well as digital/electronic goods and services (software, games, content, payments) accounting for national and cross-border flows. Moreover, these measurements often concentrate on business to consumer e-commerce. There are other forms of e-commerce to be captured including business to business, government to consumer, government to business, among others.

Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing reliance on e-commerce channels in a range of sectors, there have been calls for the AfCFTA e-commerce negotiations to be brought forward. It then becomes necessary to ask how e-commerce, which in most parts of Africa is in the nascent phase, could be treated in the AfCFTA – which is primarily an instrument for trade liberalisation. What are the issues and approaches which could be considered?

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