HANDSHAKE ACROSS THE ATLANTIC
Afreximbank’s push for AfriCaribbean trade integration is a worthy move, writes Bolaji Adebiyi
Centuries ago, Barbados, a little island on the south-eastern shores of the Caribbean Sea, was a distribution post from where most slaves of African descent were distributed to the Caribbean to till the plantations. It was not only a place where Africans, forcefully taken away from their ancestry, toiled to enlarge the wealth of their captors, it was also a trading post for the nefarious trade in humans that depopulated and despoiled the African continent.
But last week, an epochal move was made to reverse that sad part of its history as thousands of business and government leaders from across the Atlantic met in Bridgetown, its serene capital city, to begin, what they called, course-reversal through the integration of the Caribbean into the African trade and investment loop.
Tagged ACTIF 2022, the theme, One People, One Destiny: Uniting and Reimagining Our Future, pointed to the focus of the AfriCaribbean Trade and Investment Forum, which was to reunite Africa and the Caribbean through integrative trade and investment in the belief that the citizens of the two continents are branches of the same tree.
“Our shared identity has not been lost on us. That is why over one thousand leaders, policymakers, development institutions, and captains of industry from Africa and the Caribbean have gathered here to revive the spirit of family and Pan-Africanism,” Benedict Oramah, president and chairman, Board of Afreximbank, told participants at the well-attended three-day forum as it opened last Thursday at the Erskine Sandiford Centre, Ross University in Bridgetown.
He said the forum arose out of a felt need for a reunion of African people wherever they were to take advantage of their collective talent and resources to redefine both regions’ economic status, contending that their working apart for years had not benefited them.
“We will be stupid not to recognise that Africa’s borders have been extended to the Caribbean; we will have ourselves to blame if we fail to realise that we are the same people and, therefore, can constitute one integrated market,” Oramah stated as he pushed the case for AfriCaribbean economic cooperation that would ensure that the two regions benefit from their comparative advantages.
The idea, therefore, was that the forum would provide an opportunity for the Caribbean and African business communities as well as governments to establish new commercial and strategic relationships that would expand trade and investment between the two regions.
No doubt, the dominance by the North of the South in the endemic North-South trade had left the South with the short end of the stick giving rise to the thinking that it had become necessary that the South should trade some more among itself. The need for a shift is exemplified by the huge imbalance as represented by the negative balance of trade against the South countries.
For instance, although thousands of Africans are known to go to the Caribbean on vacation annually, this has been of little benefit to Africa and the Caribbean as the hotel accommodation, transportation and tourism arrangements are made by agencies domiciled outside the two regions. Again, in spite of the abundance of fish in the Caribbean, the region is responsible for less than one per cent of Africa’s $4.5billion imports. Meanwhile, a trip from Africa which should take no more than eight hours stretches to 24 hours or more because there are no direct flights between the two regions.
The felt needs Oramah spoke about, therefore, were clear to the participants as they discussed not just the challenges of the past but also the solutions and the path to the new economic cooperation that had brought them together. On the table was not just whether there should be trading and investment but also how the engagements would be done, financed and insured.
There were, therefore, discussions and agreements on how to open air and sea links between the Caribbean and Africa; the need for open banking and payment rails; joint ventures for industrial projects; deepening of commercial collaboration in the creative and commercial space; the need for collective protection of intellectual properties; and how to share knowledge and invest in climate adaption projects.
The discussions had immediate dividends that signposted the zeal of the facilitators of the forum to achieve their primary objective of creating a trade and investment linkage between Africa and the Caribbean. First, is the establishment of the Africa-Caribbean Business Council involving the Africa Business Council, CARICOM Private Sector Organisation and Afreximbank. Second, is the decision to institutionalise the AfriCaribbean Trade and Investment Forum as a platform for annual bilateral engagement. Third, is the signing of the Partnership Agreement between Afreximbank and seven Caribbean Governments of Barbados, Antigua & Barbuda, Commonwealth of Dominica, Saint Lucia, Suriname, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
The partnership agreement between Afreximbank and seven members of the Caribbean Community to promote and finance South-South trade and investment between Africa and the Caribbean was particularly significant because it aimed at the promotion and provision of insurance and guarantee services covering commercial and non-commercial risks associated with African and Caribbean exports.
The bank showed further commitments with the signing of a $250 million Trade and Investment Agreement with the Central Bank of Barbados to mobilise trade and investment between Africa and the Caribbean in collaboration with the CBB and local banks in Barbados. This is outside a commitment by Afreximbank to invest a further $700 million in the region.
In addition, there were 10 Memoranda of Understanding and three finance facilities targeted at establishing concrete commercial relationships among the cooperating corporate entities.
Despite all these outcomes, there were still hanging doubts about the capacity of the facilitators to walk the talk.
“What matters is not so much the subject area, but the attitude and approach, one for collaboration, and two for de-risking, that we come now to today’s moment to be able to deal with,” Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, whose government collaborated with Afreximbank to birth the forum, assured, emphasising, “And that is the importance of [this] inaugural AfriCaribben Trade and Investment Forum because it allows us to see how we can work together to unlock those very difficult issues that have only been made worse, regrettably by matters beyond our control.”
Oramah backed her, “We keep our promises. We didn’t travel all these thousands of kilometres to come and make a show. We came here for a purpose. Coming here is an investment towards that end. The way we work, you have to realise the benefits of that investment. The benefits of that investment are concrete results coming out of the commitment we make here. You are going to see, in the next few months, actual things on the ground.”
If those do not clear the doubts, then the thought that the efforts of the over 1,200 participants from 41 African countries, 16 Caribbean countries and 25 non-African and non-Caribbean countries that attended the Forum, in which 25 Heads of Governments either personally participated or sent high-level representatives, could not be in vain, should.
Adebiyi, the managing editor of THISDAY Newspapers, wrote from firstname.lastname@example.org