Representatives of chambers of commerce from across West Africa have come to Senegal to discuss the prospects for increasing exports from the region.
With the guidance of the Geneva-based International Trade Center , business leaders from a number of West African countries are planning future steps to further improve the panorama for businesses wishing to export goods from and among African countries.
Participants in a week-long conference represent the business sectors of over ten African countries, organizers say. The chambers of commerce are in the process of evaluating their cooperation with the International Trade Center , or ITC, to determine which programs have worked, and which direction to take forward, says Blaise Borel Dourou, a technical consultant at the Chamber of Commerce in Point Noire, Congo .
The ITC, a joint program of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, has played a role in helping West African countries develop their export sectors during the recent period of rapid expansion over the last three years, according to Edward Collins Boateng, Executive Secretary of the Ghana Export Promotion Council. "We have had quite a close level of collaboration with ITC in developing and establishing management information systems to serve the exporter community. It was a three year program which is ending, and there is the need to evaluate and see where we are, what new things we can lend, and evaluate the program. So that is what brought me here," he said.
ITC representatives say training is a key tool for small business owners in the region wishing to export internationally. They say, that since small businesses that could potentially benefit from international trade are spread out across the continent, working through the region's chambers of commerce is an effective way to make sure African businesses are getting the information they need to become effective exporters.
Boateng said the chambers of commerce participating in the conference are eager to continue to encourage the recent growth in the export sector of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS. "I think the regional trade is growing, especially within the ECOWAS sub-region. The European Union has been our main market over a couple of years. Over the last two or three years the West Africa sub region is growing very strongly, and I believe that has something to do with proximity to markets, and we intend to leverage our competence and continue growing those markets," he said.
Africa has traditionally been an exporter primarily of natural resources and raw materials. Experts say African economies would benefit from new approaches to adding value in other sectors, if they are to provide more jobs and opportunities for the people of the continent.
Boateng said he is working with the ITC in Ghana to develop a more effective service sector, which he says has traditionally been informal, both there and across the region. "We are looking basically at the services sector. We thought that we had people trading in the services for a couple of years that had not been formalized, and again with the support of the ITC we tried to formalize it. We have done a strategy with the Commonwealth Secretariat consciously to go out there, create awareness, put advocacy measures to remove obstacles towards trade in services, and effectively take these companies into things like matchmaking issues, development, and international services contracts, et cetera," he said.
The African Development bank says West African economies grew by 5.4 percent on average in 2008, though that growth was expected to slow to 4.2 percent in 2009. Ghana's national statistics service reports that the economy there grew by 7.3 percent in 2008, buoyed by the agriculture and services sectors.