Delegates prepare for photo op at the African Union Summit in Johannesburg, June 14, 2015.
Delegates prepare for photo op at the African Union Summit in Johannesburg, June 14, 2015.

JOHANNESBURG - The African Union on Monday officially began negotiations on plans to create a continent-wide free trade zone by 2017.

Addressing the AU summit in Johannesburg on Monday, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, current chairman of the 54-nation organization, called the new Continental Free Trade Area essential to promoting movement of goods and people within the continent.

To meet the 2017 implementation deadline, member states are expected to reduce trade barriers among themselves by drastically reducing export and import duties and, in some cases, waiving visa requirements.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta hailed the launch of negotiations as a critical step toward reducing poverty and doubling the continent’s economic development.

“CFTA means Africa being able to be self-reliant," he said. "CFTA means the African Union meeting to discuss what to do with our prosperity as opposed to what to do with the problems that we suffer.”

The Southern African Development Community, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa and the East African Community have already launched a tripartite trade agreement, and African heads of state at the summit have expressed hope the continental negotiations will run smoothly.

AU Commissioner for Trade and Industry Fatima Acyl says the continental body is aware of the challenges of negotiating such an agreement.

“There are some rich, resourced countries, there are some landlocked countries, there are small island countries, but we know with political will — [and] knowing the benefit of the continental free trade area — we will prevail,” he said.

The African continent, whose growing population is estimated at one billion people, is known for being rich in mineral resources. But supporting trade from Cape Town to Cairo will require billions in strong rail and road infrastructure development projects.

Countries will also have to agree on product quality to ensure a general standard for manufacturing goods being traded, a key part if which will require protecting countries with weaker economies from having their manufacturing industries strangled by economic giants like South Africa and Nigeria.