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A voice for the private sector as regional integration advances: the new High Business Council for central Africa




Travel isn’t always simple in central Africa – even between the 11 countries connected as part of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS).

 

“Sometimes to travel to another country, you have to take a plane to another part of Africa – even to Europe – to come back to central Africa,” says Daniel Claude Abate, president of the Mouvement des Entrepreneurs, a business association, in Cameroon and Vice President of the High Business Council for Central Africa. What’s more, he says, “we have 3,100 kilometres of coastline, but there isn’t a single shipping company that can transport your goods along our coast.” As a result – and because of customs duties, competing trade rules, and lack of infrastructure – cross-border trade remains stifled. In some cases the lack of regional links is striking: among Gabon’s top 40 trading partners there is not even one African country.

A gap in private sector representation

Closer integration in this region would bring significant benefits – more jobs, reduced poverty and a stronger economy. Indeed, integration is a key goal of all eight regional economic communities in Africa. But this can only happen effectively with the input of the private sector, a vital engine of economic growth. Although ECCAS countries’ national policies recognised this key role of the private sector, ECCAS was until recently the only regional African community with no formal entity representing business.

 

That was a major problem, says François Kanimba, ECCAS’s Commissioner for the common market, economic, monetary and financial affairs. For example, companies were often unaware of regulations that had been introduced to benefit them. “This is very awkward. It becomes very difficult to actually implement them,” he says. Business representatives were also expressing frustration at the barriers to cross-border trade.

 

By 2021, the time was ripe for action. The ECCAS five-year strategy had set out plans for a new High Business Council which would represent private sector interests in discussions on regional integration, and ensure companies could take advantage of free trade opportunities. ECCAS engaged the ICR Facility to help establish this new entity.

Creating a new entity

One challenge was deciding who should represent the private sector within the new entity, so as a first step, the ICR Facility provided technical assistance to map the key private sector organisations and associations in each of the ECCAS countries. The ICR Facility also provided the High Business Council with draft statutes, rules of procedure and a three-year strategic plan. These operational and legal documents were approved by a General Assembly in October 2022, which also elected a first executive board andestablished permanent commissions.

 

While this groundwork has been done, the High Business Council must now continue its operationalisation and start the implementation of its strategic plan. The next steps include the recruitment of new members and the development of a sustainable business model, based on providing paid-for services to its members, in order to thrive as an organisation.

ECCAS High Business Council: key info

  • Vision: “A Central Africa that is more integrated, more competitive and better able to meet the challenges of opening the markets”
  • Purpose: (i) To actively contribute to the intrinsic development of the private sector of the Central African member states; and (ii) to establish a permanent framework for consultation and dialogue between the member states of the Economic Commission of Central African States (ECCAS) and representatives of their private sector
  • Headquarters: Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
  • Governance: To include a general assembly, a board of directors and executive board, specialised commissions (focusing on different economic sectors, plus a commission for female entrepreneurship, youth, vulnerable persons and the diaspora), national representations, and a general secretariat
  • Members: Organisations representing the private sector, as well as institutions, companies and entrepreneurs of ECCAS member states

Dual objectives

Although it has faced some obstacles, the creation of the High Business Council is a milestone: it means there is now a permanent mechanism for dialogue between member states of Central Africa and private sector representatives. That means the views and expectations of businesses and entrepreneurs can be fully taken on board as the region develops and implements policies.

 

For Kanimba, the objectives of the High Business Council are two-fold: commercial integration within the region, and developing the private sector itself. “For example, through cooperation between private sector trade associations in the region, there are opportunities to exchange information, to disseminate best practices… there is also the capacity to mobilise international partnerships to develop large-scale investments in the region,” he says. “When there’s a platform like this, it becomes much easier and more credible.” For his part, Abate is hopeful that the High Business Council can help to revive and potentially mobilise investment for stalled infrastructure projects in the region, and even initiate other projects, for instance in energy or agriculture.

 

The ICR Facility’s support for ECCAS is co-funded by the European Union, as part of its broader work to accelerate both regional and continental integration processes and to help create a conducive business environment that benefits all.

 

As Cécile Abadie, ambassador of the EU to Gabon, Sao Tome and Principe and the ECCAS, puts it: “The purpose of this High Business Council is to provide long-term support for the development of the private sector as an essential player in economic growth and development. It is also part of our objective to promote the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area which is intended to become a single continental market, ensuring the free circulation of goods, people, services and investments.”

Significant impact ahead

Once the new High Business Council is operational, the private sector should be in a much stronger position to contribute to a form of regional – and ultimately continental – integration that works for businesses. Private sector representatives will be able to more easily learn from their peers in other countries; and there will be better communication between administrators at regional level, and businesses and their representatives at national level.

“We really expect to see a significant impact,” says Kanimba. “Now is the time for action… we have to do everything we can to get this platform up and running quickly,” he adds. For a region that counts some 200m inhabitants, covering more than a fifth of Africa’s territory, the potential could be immense.

Related links:

https://www.icr-facility.eu/creation-of-a-high-business-council-in-central-africa-1

https://www.icr-facility.eu/fileadmin/files/downloads/factsheets/technical_factsheet_ceeac.pdf

 

This publication is part of an intervention supported by the Investment Climate Reform (ICR) Facility. The ICR Facility is co-funded by the European Union (EU), the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) under the 11th European Development Fund (EDF), the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the British Council. The ICR Facility is implemented by GIZ, the British Council, Expertise France, and SNV. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the donors or the implementing partners.

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