Africa has achieved impressive growth, of around 5% per annum, over the past 15 years emerging as the second fastest growing region in the world.  Unfortunately this growth has been driven primarily by commodities with limited impact on employment and poverty.   Moreover, potential for regional production chains to drive global exports of manufacturing that could ensure sustainability, such as that of East Asia, has yet to be exploited.   Additionally, Africa has experienced numerous challenges ranging from distortions in development, violations in national priorities, persistent conflicts and youth exclusion.  A recent report jointly produced by the World Bank, African Development Bank and World Economic Forum states that integration is a key vehicle to help Africa raise competitiveness, diversify its economic base and create enough jobs for its young, fast-urbanizing population.

Furthermore, regional integration will be necessary to overturn the negative effects of the political and economic fragmentation of Africa.   A report released by the World Bank earlier this year states that high trade barriers with neighboring countries are costing African nations billions of dollars of potential earnings and depriving the continent of new sources of economic growth.  But non-tariff barriers also continue to limit the growth of trade throughout all African regional groupings, imposing unnecessary costs on exporters. For example, in Southern Africa, a truck serving supermarkets across a border may need to carry up to 1600 documents as a result of permit and licenses and other requirements.  Alarming statistics published by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation show that total intra-African trade amounts to only 11.3% of Africa’s total trade with the world.  Those businesses that do operate across countries are not African-owned, for example non-African airlines account for 80% of the intracontinental market share.   Those working to ensure the regional integration of the continent face immense challenges including, capacity and financial constraints, macroeconomic instability and economic fragmentation, numerous overlapping sub-groupings, poor and inadequate infrastructure, wars and conflicts.

However, even with the aforementioned challenges there has been some incredible progress by all stakeholders to hasten regional integration in order to create bigger markets and to improve citizens’ welfare through free movement of goods, capital, people and services across African borders.  Regional trade can bring staple foods from areas of surplus production across borders to growing urban markets and food deficient rural areas. Also, with rising incomes in Africa there are emerging opportunities for cross-border trade in basic manufacturing, including metal and plastic products that are costly to import from the global market.  And cross-border trade in services offers untapped opportunities for exports as well as better access for consumers to critical services such as health and education, and firms to services such as accountancy and other professional services that boost productivity.  These efforts have been facilitated through the creation of numerous regional blocks such as the East African Community (EAC), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), South African Development Community (SADC), Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) among others. These entities ensure that regional integration goes beyond mere trade liberalization to include investments in regional infrastructure, harmonization of regulations and standards, common approaches to macroeconomic policy, management of shared national resources.  However, the efforts towards regional integration have not sufficiently factored in youth policy considerations that impinge on human development.

The strategic importance of the burgeoning youth population needs to be addressed within the context of regional integration. Through the theme “Fostering Regional Integration for a Prosperous Africa: Transforming Youth Potential to Opportunity Across Borders” the Youth Alliance for Leadership and Development in Africa (YALDA) recognises the fact that an emergent and integrated Africa can only be fully realise if the continent takes advantage of its human resources which are characterised by a large population of the youth. The conference will therefore create a platform whereby the youth can propose innovative strategies beyond conventional approaches to regional integration when implementing their ideas. YALDA seeks to support state-level processes by enhancing the continent’s integration through a bottom-top process that places the youth at the centre of regional integration through social entrepreneurship, mentorship, and youth engagement programmes. Different strategies will be explored to address the context specific integration challenges between the varied regional blocs.