By Paul Ndiho

August 29, 2011

The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa or COMESA, is a free trade area with more than 20 member states. Created in 1994, COMESA replaced the preferential trade area which had existed since 1981. As the organization has grown, it has made significant strides in attaining sustainable development through the promotion of trade and investment into the region.

Since its inception, the COMESA trading bloc has undergone a tremendous transformation and it continues to strive to achieve greater mutual integration among its members. Through various declarations and agreements; such as the Economic Partnership Agreements– and the establishment of the Free Trade Areas — that have been entered into by member states, it is becoming increasingly evident that the need for an integrated commercial front is more desirable than ever. Brian Chigawa, a legal advisor for COMESA says that there is cooperation among member states in all fields of economic activity.

“The focus of the organization has been trade, improving intra-regional trade by removing tariffs and also non – tariffs buriers. I can competently say that by now 14 member states of COMESA are trading in a free trade area which was launched in the year 2000. COMESA has also launched a customs union and we are in transitional phase which was three to five years from 2009. When we talk of promoting COMESA trade, it goes also with putting up measures that facilitate trade.”

Chigawa also says there are many trade and investment opportunities available in the region, plus, he notes that the continent is a potential world leader in several specialized trade and investment areas.

“When the free trade area for COMESA was launched in 2000, we had figures of intra-COMESA regional trade at about two three billion dollars, now we are talking about trading 15 billion dollars. So there is a remarkable improvement.”

COMESA members are working around the clock, focusing on promoting and enhancing free labor movement across regional borders.

“If I travel from Zambia to Kenya or if I travel from Zambia to another country, I do not need a VISA before I get into that country. I can get a VISA at the point of entry. And there is another legal instrument which is the protocol of free movement of persons, services and labor which was adopted and we got the first signatures in 2006 it has not entered into force.”

Some political analysts say the economic bloc will create a free trade zone which will help streamline access to markets throughout Africa. Analysts also note that the economic group is capable of overcoming some of the barriers that are faced by individual states. Brian Chigawa says that job creation, especially for the young people is one of COMESA’s top priorities.

It’s a conviction of COMESA member states that if we increase our trade first among ourselves and also with the rest of the world, we’ll be in a position so as to create employment for our populations. How do we achieve that? If you look back, over the years we’ve been as a region exporting raw materials, this is one of the challenges that we have is to transform our raw materials into value added materials and by making our products very competitive. And we believe that to be able to attain that, we need a certain level of industrialization and through trade and investment, we should able to create jobs for our populations.

COMESA’s critics say that the region has some of the highest poverty levels of any developing region in the world. And that COMESA has not achieved its ultimate targets, especially in the areas of common currency, faster economic growth, and reduction in both rural and urban poverty and improved standards of living.

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