Behind the scenes

How Wamkele Mene made African free trade a priority at the World Economic Forum

By Julien Clémençot

Posted on January 26, 2023 16:56

In the last three years, the world saw the onslaught of Covid-19 followed by the conflict in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) continued to chug along. Wamkele Mene, Secretary General of the AfCFTA Secretariat, defended the organisation at the World Economic Forum, where he benefited from British think tank Odi. We break it down.

He was not the most famous decision-maker at Davos from 17-20 January, but South African Wamkele Mene, Secretary General of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), was a constant presence the whole week in Switzerland.

With the Covid-19 pandemic seemingly under control, followed by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the AfCFTA’s objectives were to bring this historical agreement back to the heart of international dialogue, between African decision-makers and their international partners.

Wamkele, upon being appointed to his position in 2020, initially suffered from a lack of connections within various business circles, so the secretary general has since focused on expanding his professional circle in the AfCFTA’s best interests.

Recent times have seen ally Patrick McGill, a former member of the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s African delegation, come to his aid.

This time around, Wamkele was able to rely on the support of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a British think tank. On 17 January, he was the main panelist at the ODI’s adjacent conference that week, stressing, alongside the Zambian minister of commerce, Chipoka Mulenga, the importance of public-private partnerships for the establishment of an African free trade zone.

Hosted by Sara Pantuliano, ODI’s Chief Executive, this is not the first time that the ODI has offered Wamkele a platform for his arguments. Last October, Pantuliano hosted an online hourlong debate to promote Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s initiative during his time atop the African Union.

Created in 1960, ODI is financed mainly by the British government and certain other western countries such as France, receiving donations from charities led by Bill and Melinda Gates, Pierre Omidyar, and IKEA. The Bissau-Guinean economist Carlos Lopes serves as a visiting researcher and Frannie Léautier, Tanzanian civil engineer, international finance consultant, and partner of the Southbridge Bank, sits on its board of directors.

In May 2021, Pantuliano received £18.4m in funding from the British Foreign Ministry to, among other things, support the negotiations surrounding the application of the AfCFTA over the period lasting from 2022 and 2026. She then reached an agreement with German cooperation to produce a number of studies highlighting the opportunities offered by the implementation of the free trade zone.

ODI’s work has been widely mentioned by the AfCFTA report published on 18 January by the WEF, in which Wamkele participated in.

It gave rise to a debate bringing together other African leaders, such as Tunisia’s Najla Bouden, the DRC’s Félix Tshisekedi, and Tanzania’s Samia Suluhu Hassan, with WEF President Børge Brende and leaders of large multinational corporations like Novartis, Volkswagen, and Coca Cola in attendance.

That same day, Wamkele was present at the Maison de l’Afrique to chair a session on continental trade. “The AfCFTA is more than an agreement. It is a roadmap for economic development,” he said.

Wamkele’s lobbying marathon ended the following day, beginning with Acha Leke, the Cameroonian-born Chairman of McKinsey in Africa, followed by an event organised by Africa Collective, a platform for the promotion of intercontinental exchanges.

Standing before an audience of multinational investors and corporate leadership, Wamkele made his argument for increased growth and trade with Iain Williamson, Managing Director of Old Mutual Limited and Claire Akamanzi, Managing Director of Rwanda Development Board.

The South African’s objective, as stated, would be to release 50 million people from poverty before 2035, increase continental income by 8%, intra-African exports by 109%, and by 32% those destined for other regions in the world.

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