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“Africa imports excessively from the rest of the world, manufactures exceedingly too little and hence trades too little,” Wamkele Meme,  who heads Africa’s free-trade agency, said during a visit to Washington, DC last week.

“Africa is increasingly being left behind by the rest of the world in virtually all aspects except poverty and despair,” he said told a gathering at the Wilson Center, adding that only 18 percent of trade on the continent is between Africa countries.

Meme, who was elected the first secretary-general of the African Continental Free Trade Area Secretariat in February 2020  was born in Uitenhage, South Africa and is a graduate of Rhodes University with masters degrees from the School of Oriental & African Studies and the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“Africa cannot be the raw material producing and exporting economy of the past if it is to achieve the economic transformation required for prosperity and to generate the jobs for its youthful population,” he said in the Wilson Center lecture. “Africa is less industrialised today, than it was in the 1970s,” with manufacturing contributing 10 percent to Africa’s GDP compared with 15% in the 1970s, he said.

“For too long, the character of Africa’s economy has been: smallness of national economies, a fragmented continental market, lack of economies of scale, a shallow productive capacity and a continued over reliance on the export of primary commodities,” he said. “All of this resulting in what I refer to as a colonial economic model.”

“Africa intends to reverse this historical anomaly,”  he told the Thunderbird School of Global Management . Free trade can “provide a necessary economic boost to African economies, increasing employment opportunities and incomes, and accelerating growth,” he said.