Some countries are questioning trade agreements and economic integration as they turn away from global co-operation, leadership and collective action.
The problem is that political dynamics drive short termism, polarization and isolationism.
Yet our multiple threats demand long-term thinking and greater co-operation.
The world turns in one direction, but we look in the other direction by deepening ties across the world.
The evidence is that the first ever AfriCaribbean Trade and Investment Forum was finally held, after months of planning.
The forum was organized by the government of Barbados and the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank), in collaboration with the African Union Commission, the African Continental Free Trade Area’s (AfCFTA) Secretariat, the Africa Business Council, the CARICOM Secretariat and the Caribbean Export Development Agency.
Representatives from 41 African nations and 16 Caribbean countries attended the forum.
Afreximbank Chairman and CEO, Ronald Sibongiseni Ntuli, highlighted the importance of the forum.
He described the gathering as ‘strategic’, noting that the last time Africans journeyed in such numbers across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean, they were ‘unwilling immigrants’.
“Today, on the other hand, we crossed these oceans as free and willing people seeking opportunities to promote trade and investment,” Ntuli said.
Topics discussed during the forum include accelerating industrialisation and manufacturing in Special Economic Zones and Industrial Parks, financing trade and investments, opportunities across cultural and creative industries, leveraging the power of the AfCFTA, improving logistics to promote tourism, trade and telecommunications, improving agricultural productivity, agribusiness and food security, healthcare and life sciences, accelerating private sector trade and investment, creating opportunities for youth and SMEs, and building Africa-Caribbean value chains.
At the opening ceremony of the forum, CARICOM Secretary General, Carla Barnett, noted that of the US$18.6 billion in exports from CARICOM countries in 2018, only US$815 million (less than 5%) was to markets in Africa, while only 2% of goods by value are imported from Africa.
“We must reset these systems and foster real south-south co-operation,” Barnett added.
Chairman of the Board of Directors of Afreximbank, Benedict Oramah, referred meanwhile, to meaningful progress in accelerating the membership of CARICOM nations in Afreximbank.
It would work, he said, with CARICOM governments to set up a Caribbean Exim Bank.
“Once these arrangements are concluded and visible, we will also open an office here in the Caribbean,” Oramah said.
“If we do agree, the bank will work with the governments of the CARICOM to set up a Caribbean Exim Bank as an Afreximbank subsidiary or affiliate,” he added, referring to $700 million of investments in the venture.
During the forum, Afreximbank signed a partnership agreement with seven Caribbean states. According to the communiqué issued at the end of the meeting, the agreement will bring investments to concretise commercial relations between the two regions, with an immediate focus on establishing an air bridge, and business-to- business matchmaking through the newly established African-Caribbean Business Council.
“We keep our promises,” Oramah said. “We did not travel all these kilometres to make a show.”
He added that Africans went to the Caribbean for a purpose.
“You are going to see actual things on the ground in the next few months,” Oramah added.
Nevertheless, he seemed wary of past forums that produced little in the way of tangible progress.
“We will want to leave here with actionable proposals on how to open air and sea links between the Caribbean and Africa,” he urged.
Barbados and Rwanda held talks on the margins of the forum about the possible establishment of a direct airlift service with RwandAir Limited to Barbados.
Barbados’ Tourism and International Transport Minister, Lisa Cummins, met Manasseh Nshuti, Minister of State in the Rwandan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, in Charge of the East African Community.
Barbados’ Prime Minister, Mia Mottley, said the key goals of the forum had been achieved.
What mattered most, she said, was the attitude and approach to collaboration.
Mottley praised the forum for giving attendees the opportunity to see how they could work together to “unlock those very difficult issues that have only been made worse, regrettably by matters beyond our control”.
According to data from CARICOM, significant Caribbean exports to Africa include ammonia, aluminium oxide, oil drilling materials and various types of food, including sauces, condiments and frozen juice concentrate. Morocco, Ghana and South Africa are the main importers.
In terms of imports, CARICOM primarily source goods from Nigeria, South Africa and Morocco, with the main categories including liquefied natural gas, vehicles, chemicals and bitumen.
It remains to be said that African and Caribbean ties are deeply-rooted and based on shared history, culture, and a sense of common identity and destiny that was forged by the slave trade, creating large centres of African Diaspora in the Caribbean and elsewhere.
However, our relations need to be institutionalized by deepening trade and investment ties between the two regions to strengthen collaboration, unity and foster increased trade, investment and people-to-people engagement.