A recent visit to Johannesburg highlighted to me the immense potential of Africa as a global powerhouse – a young, vibrant continent with a bright future.
So what is holding it back? A continuing discussion during my stay was the viability of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area and what is needed to get it off the ground. The numbers are indeed impressive. Africa represents a current market of 1.2 billion consumers, rising to almost 1.7bn by 2030 with a combined GDP of US$2.5 trillion. Imagine the potential of unlocking free trade and tourism across the continent.
Yet the program appears to be mired in some fundamental challenges. During the inaugural African Continental Free Trade Area Business Forum in Cape Town in April, one businessman attending the conference highlighted to African Business magazine that today, it is easier to get mobile phones from China to Africa than to move a few bags of maize across an African border post.
Striking a balance
Therein lies the rub: For a free trade area to work, governments need to balance the need to protect their countries from trafficking, terrorism, pandemics, and crime while making it easier to move people and goods across their borders.
The good news is that proven digital border management technology and emerging digital identities put Africa in pole position to lead the way. A key advantage for Africa is that it faces fewer legacy challenges in the digital space and in many ways, it can move faster. But the digital transformation of borders will be inevitable if the continent is to achieve its ambition.
Airlines and airports understand the potential of digitalizing border processes. At the coal face of international travel, the industry has long recognized the need for digital immigration processes. The challenges of COVID have only served to accelerate that trend. For example, SITA’s 2022 Air Transport IT Insights showed that 75% of airline executives will invest in passenger biometric identity solutions by 2025. This means passengers will be identified by a simple facial scan, making the identification process fast and secure.
However, it can’t be done by one industry in isolation. It needs government and broader industry support.
This week, SITA will join a number of government officials from across the continent in Johannesburg – including South Africa’s own Home Affairs Department – to continue discussing how we can digitalize borders at the International Border Management and Technologies Association (IBMATA) Summit Africa 2023.
SITA is leading the way
AT SITA, we have been at the forefront of this push. Over the past 30 years, SITA has helped 70 governments – including South Africa and Egypt – make their border crossings faster and more secure. We have helped governments digitalize key immigration processes so that they can be completed ahead of travel. This helps governments complete the assessment of who enters their country long before they arrive. Travelers, on the other hand, only have to complete a simple check on arrival.
The benefit of this approach has been shown to work time and again, particularly at big sporting events such as the World Cup. We helped South Africa in 2010, Brazil in 2014, and Qatar in 2022 to manage the vast influx of visitors.
Digital identities will take this to a new level. Driven by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets global passport standards, the industry is shaping a new digital identity that will replace physical documents such as identity cards or passports. A key driver is that holders will choose what data they would like to share with whom. It is privacy by design. These digital identities can be used at the airport but also at land and sea borders or other touchpoints, such as hotels or major events, as we did in Qatar for the World Cup. All that is needed is a simple scan of your face a biometric touchpoint or on your mobile phone. We see these digital identities being extended to goods and services.
Together these technologies will reshape how borders are managed.
Making free trade a reality
The technology exists today to make an African free trade area a reality. It allows the balancing of protectionist measures to keep national borders safe with a more welcoming face to visitors. It is scalable. And it is inclusive, allowing all elements of public life to be managed from a single identity.
With the right support from governments across Africa, we can pull many levers to unlock free trade and tourism across the continent. Policy and intergovernmental co-operation the two most obvious but digitalization must surely be essential among them.