AfCFTA competition protocol: Balancing opportunities and challenges for digital platforms in Africa

  • 9 Feb 2024
  • 3 Mins Read
  • 〜 by Jewel Tete

The vision of a united Africa is realised through the establishment of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the world’s largest Free Trade Area (FTA), encompassing 55 countries and representing all African Union (AU) member states. The practical implementation of the AfCFTA has the potential to foster industrialisation, job creation, and investment, thus enhancing the competitiveness of Africa in the medium to long term. At its core, the AfCFTA aims to catalyse intra-African trade, currently stagnating at 14.4% of total African exports, the lowest while compared to other continents. Forecasts from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) suggest the AfCFTA could elevate intra-Africa trade by approximately 33% while slashing the continent’s trade deficit by 51%. However, realising the full potential of this initiative necessitates substantial policy reforms and trade facilitation measures.


Amidst this transformative endeavour, concerns loom regarding fair competition practices across a continent marked by eight Regional Economic Blocs (RECs). The African Union (AU) has developed the AfCFTA Protocol on Competition Policy, aiming to safeguard against anti-competitive business practices and ensure that the gains facilitated by AfCFTA remain steadfast. Africa’s digital economy is experiencing exponential growth, fueled by increasing internet penetration and smartphone adoption. The rise of digital platforms and online intermediaries has revolutionised the economy, offering unparalleled opportunities for trade and economic expansion. These platforms provide access to digital services and generate valuable data, creating significant economic and social impact. In this context, navigating competition regulation is important for unleashing the full potential of the digital economy across the continent.


The establishment of the AfCFTA heralds a new era of economic integration across the continent, promising vast opportunities for digital platforms and online intermediaries.These platforms serve as vital conduits for trade, connecting buyers and sellers while facilitating seamless transactions across borders. From e-commerce marketplaces to social networks and payment systems, these platforms wield immense influence across diverse sectors, reshaping traditional business models and consumer behaviours. Yet, concerns have emerged regarding the dominance of certain digital platforms, leading to apprehensions about anti-competitive practices, market distortions, and unfair advantages. Dominant platforms impose unfair terms on businesses and consumers, restrict market access for smaller players, and stifle innovation. Additionally, data collection raises concerns about privacy, market manipulation, and the potential exclusion of certain groups.


This notwithstanding, the AfCFTA Competition Protocol poses its own set of challenges. This includes the assertion of its primacy over regional agreements on competition laws. This provision stipulates that in case of a conflict between the Protocol and regional competition laws, the Protocol shall prevail. The provision, while intended to harmonise competition regulation across the continent, presents a potential conflict with the principle of legal precedence within individual countries. National competition laws often take precedence over international agreements or protocols. Thus, the AfCFTA Competition Protocol’s supremacy clause may raise questions regarding its enforceability and implementation at the national level. 


Moreover, the complexity of the regulatory environment is compounded by the presence of overlapping protocols within the AfCFTA framework. The AfCFTA is characterised by eight Regional Economic Communities (RECs), each with its own set of protocols and regulations. 

The existence of these overlapping protocols further complicates the task of ensuring consistent and coherent competition regulation, especially for digital platforms and online intermediaries operating across multiple regions. Despite the challenges posed by the evolving regulatory landscape, the AfCFTA also presents significant opportunities for digital platforms and online intermediaries. The harmonisation of competition regulation across Africa has the potential to create a more level playing field, enabling greater market access and facilitating cross-border expansion.


To successfully navigate the challenges ahead, digital platforms should embrace collaboration with regulatory authorities, industry stakeholders, and consumer groups. This collaborative effort fosters open dialogue and cooperation, empowering businesses to actively shape policies and regulations. By striking a balance between addressing competition concerns and fostering innovation and market growth, businesses play a crucial role in creating a regulatory environment conducive to progress. Transparency and accountability are fundamental values that digital platforms must uphold. These businesses should adopt transparent practices regarding data usage, algorithms, and terms of service. Such transparency not only builds trust with users and regulators but also alleviates concerns regarding market dominance and unfair competition. Ultimately, fostering transparency contributes to the development of a healthier digital ecosystem that supports sustainable growth.

Similarly, adherence to fair competition practices is essential for digital platforms within the AfCFTA. Platforms should steer clear of anti-competitive behaviour such as exclusive dealing, price discrimination, or predatory pricing. By promoting fair competition, businesses drive innovation and encourage market diversity, ultimately benefiting consumers across the continent. Data privacy and security represent critical considerations for digital platforms operating within the AfCFTA. These platforms must prioritise the protection of user data to mitigate risks associated with data breaches and privacy violations. Safeguarding user information, enhances trust and confidence in digital services, fostering a more secure digital environment.


As Africa embarks on its regional integration journey within the AfCFTA, competition regulation emerges as a crucial factor in shaping the digital landscape. Digital platforms and online intermediaries must approach regulatory challenges with a proactive and collaborative mindset, prioritising competition, innovation, and consumer well-being. By adhering to fair competition practices, promoting transparency, and prioritising data privacy, digital platforms contribute to the creation of a vibrant and inclusive digital ecosystem that drives economic growth and prosperity across the continent.