Rapid growth in internet connectivity and in the use of the internet for economic purposes is driving major economic shifts, including changes in how products are exchanged within and across countries. The emergence of e-commerce in Africa is a manifestation of these broader shifts but as in other regions, national policy makers in Africa are still grappling on how to deal with these shifts.
With the emergence of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), there have been suggestions that an e-commerce agreement could offer a possible framework for overcoming some of these challenges and tap into African e-commerce opportunities: through coordinating initiatives and harmonizing rules on e-commerce at a continental level. This paper explores the potential of an AfCFTA e-commerce initiative, exploring the key challenges and some of the priority areas that that might be focussed on.
Overall, the paper broadly supports the value for African-wide harmonization and rulemaking in the area of e-commerce. In particular, we highlight the importance of continental collaboration to counter potential fragmentation in the governance of e-commerce and the digital economy in Africa as a result of the varying global agendas in this regard. Within Africa, there has been encouraging growth of regional e-commerce activity, but continental harmonization is now vital to ensure that national and sub-regional initiatives do not lead to contradictory and overlapping rules. This could hinder digital linkages between African states and make it more difficult for African countries to develop a common position in global debates on e-commerce.
E-commerce in Africa is growing, and in many nations, foundational rules and infrastructure are now in place. It is notable, however, that the outcome of national and regional activity has tended to be e-commerce sectors focussed on affluent countries, trade amongst established firms and customers amongst urban elites. While market-driven diffusion of e-commerce is likely to result in wider use over the coming decade, a drive to push more inclusive e-commerce markets and integrate broader swathes of the economy into e-commerce or e-trade is vital if e-commerce is to have broader economic impacts. This calls for an ambitious agenda at an African level, in areas such as digital infrastructure, logistics, movement of small packages, taxation and payment integration to discover continental best practices and promote harmonization.