People, Trade, and Technology
The African Union is determined to fulfil an old dream: a link from Cape to Cairo; except that the original imperial dream articulated by Cecil Rhodes focused on rail (the technology of the 19th Century) while the new thrust is based on trade (built around the idea of a Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) bringing together three regional organizations. There is yet an articulation of what technology will replace the rail; although much is said about the inadequacy of road, rail, and air communications as obstacles to intra-Africa trade.
Africans were trading with each other and with the outside world long before the boundaries from the Berlin Conference of 1883 were drawn. Even then, trade was constrained by the inability of traders to quickly travel long distances. In that respect, transportation infrastructure remains the main obstacle to intra-Africa trade. But there is a new dimension today, far more challenging than physical infrastructure - boundaries! The richest man in Africa, Mr Dangote, summarized it at the recently World Economic Forum held in Cape Town: an American wishing to trade in Africa would need fewer visas than Mr Dangote wishing to do the same. The myriad of traders, many of them women, around Africa will tell you the hassles of crossing borders - on account of complicated regulations, insecurity of the person, as well as limitations of physical infrastructure. In spite of poor infrastructure, more intra-African trade could be realized if traders could freely move their goods across borders.
With available technology, it should be possible to capture information of traders and their goods so that transit through borders is faster, more efficient, and supportive of local production. One-stop border posts are able to quickly clear containers on trucks; and there is no reason why similar technologies cannot be developed to assist local traders move their goods across these borders. While the lack of rail was the obstacle to Cecil Rhodes dream of Cape to Cairo trade, today's main obstacle has much to do with the rules we have put in place to stop people movement and ultimately hold back intra-Africa trade. New appropriate technologies to process people and goods speedily would therefore be a good place to start in order to unleash the commercial potential of Africa's dynamic traders. With Point Sale Devices and internet connectivity, an Electronic Traders Travel Document should be a goal to drive trade by the thousands of African traders trying to cross borders everyday.
Innovators and entrepreneurs stand challenged!