ITC Shares

Women are the future of African trade

15 December 2021
Anahita Vasudevan, International Trade Centre

Women’s business associations are leveraging trade opportunities under the African Continental Free Trade Area.


In 2018, political and business leaders gathered in Kigali for the African Union Summit on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). When discussing the role of businesses in regional integration, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda said it best: “… The clear wish of everyone is that consultation between business and political leadership, at all levels, becomes a continuous feature of continental deliberations.”

Yet, when we conducted the first-ever survey of around 70 women’s business associations across Africa in 2020, 75% reported they had not been involved in any consultations related to the AfCFTA, and most said they were not taking advantage of regional trade agreements in general.

So, what happened?


Although the AfCFTA recognizes gender equality as an important cross-cutting issue, three main issues popped up across the board:

1. translating technical knowledge into actual change,
2. ensuring women’s representation in policy discussions, and
3. creating opportunities to learn from each other’s experiences.

Under the GIZ-funded SheTrades: Empowering Women in the AfCFTA project, ITC is supporting women to participate in and impact policy processes that will influence their future trade outcomes.

official group photo SheTrades Global 2019
© ITC/Chris Lutanga
Increasing technical knowledge


It is often cited that the AfCFTA has the potential to support a market of over 1 billion people, contribute more than $3 trillion to global GDP, and significantly increase Africa’s share of international trade.

However, for women entrepreneurs to benefit, they need to understand the incentives for trading within Africa, what will change for individual businesses, and how they might be affected in particular.

Working with sectoral experts, representatives of regional economic communities and women’s associations, ITC produced policy briefs on AfCFTA topics including trade facilitation, standards, non-tariff barriers, ICT and digital trade, to identify priority issues for women. ITC also offered provided Virtual Learning Spaces and market intelligence studies.


Engaging in policy advocacy and reform


“We need to have a top-down and bottom-up model to make sure there is communication between both policymakers and women on the ground,” said Joy Zenz when participating in a continental policy advocacy dialogue with trade negotiators in August 2021.

Thanks to the hard work of women’s associations, this is exactly what took shape. Representatives of women’s associations had the chance to argue in favour of four key recommendations related to:
• representation of women on national committees
• streamlining documentary requirements
• training for customs officials on gender issues
• common standards for trade in goods and mutual recognition agreements for professional qualifications for trade in services.

Permanent secretaries and representatives of six countries participated in the discussion.

The response from the trade officials was overwhelmingly positive. It really showed the discussion had moved from “why is gender important?” to “what can we do to make sure gender issues are included?” in national-level conversations.

They even shared the experiences of their countries in incorporating (or planning to incorporate) gender in national implementation plans for the AfCFTA.

In some instances, such as The Gambia and Sierra Leone, countries were supported to mainstream gender into AfCFTA national strategies based on country-level data collected through ITC’s SheTrades Outlook tool, which helps examine data gaps, identify areas for policy reform, and share best practices.

Building the foundation for a continental network


Women’s business associations expressed interest in leveraging their experiences to create a continental network for women in the AfCFTA.

The network’s purpose would be to create a vehicle for knowledge sharing, form a sound lobby group, and promote better access to markets and information. This would help define common advocacy goals, increase connectivity, and avoid duplication.

For the first time, ITC worked with expert consultants and heads of women’s business associations in different regions in Africa to conduct sub-regional consultations for the development and operationalization of a network.


For more information on the SheTrades: Empowering Women in the AfCFTA project and its resources, visit