Opening remarks by DG Azevêdo

Roberto Azevêdo’s speeches


Minister Enelamah,
Minister Setipa,
Minister Addy,
Distinguished panelists,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to welcome you all to the launch of this new WTO publication: “African Perspectives on Trade and the WTO”.

This volume looks at the challenges and opportunities for Africa as it continues to integrate into the multilateral trading system. And it is closely associated with our 10th Ministerial Conference, held in Nairobi last year.

It evolved from an event held the day before the Conference began — the Nairobi China Round Table. I joined President Kenyatta, Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed, Chinese Vice-Minister Wang, and a number of other Ministers to exchange views on the role of Africa in the future of the multilateral trading system.

That debate raised many important issues and ideas, which are developed in this new publication. And it helped to focus minds ahead of the Nairobi Ministerial Conference, which of course went on to deliver some very important outcomes for Africa.

Those outcomes included the biggest reform of global agriculture trade in 20 years — which also delivered on a key target of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

So I’m pleased to be joined by these Ministers today, as they played a key role in that success.

The WTO’s African members have been increasingly central in the debates here over recent years. And I think the fact that the WTO Ministerial Conference was held in Africa for the first time helped to strengthen that sense of ownership.

All members are working now to plot the way forward after Nairobi, and it is clear to me that Africa’s voice will be more important than ever in that conversation. 

This is an exciting time for the WTO — and it is an exciting time for Africa.

The continent is often described as the next “growth frontier”.

The collapse of commodity prices has led some to question whether this is still the case. However, I think the fundamentals are strong. Africa is projected to be the world’s second fastest growing continent between 2016 and 2020, with an annual growth rate of 4.3%. It has the youngest population and a growing consumer base. By 2034, the continent is expected to have a larger workforce than China or India. And African entrepreneurs are increasingly innovating and capturing people’s attention.

Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg said recently that Africa’s technology companies would help change the whole world.

But for all this to happen, we have to be making progress across the board. That means tackling poverty and inequality. It means shifting away from a reliance on primary commodities. It means finding ways to boost infrastructure — both traditional and digital.

Only one in four people in Africa use the internet. But numbers are growing. And as we’ve seen with the spread of mobile phone usage in Africa and innovations like M-Pesa — technology allows you to make big jumps forward.

And I think the WTO can continue to play an important role in a whole range of ways — but I want to mention just three this afternoon.

First, by offering a platform to influence the debate.  

When we talk about “Africa” of course we are actually talking about 54 very diverse countries.

44 of these are WTO members — meaning that Africa already makes up more than a quarter of the total membership. And seven more are in the process of joining.

The discussion at the WTO is currently more open and dynamic than we’ve seen in a long time. This is an opportunity to put Africa’s issues and economic priorities on the table and work to push them forward. And the time to do it is right now.

Second, the WTO can be a means to help achieve goals on regional integration.

Intra-regional trade accounts for only about 17% of the total trade in Africa. So clearly there is scope for more to be done on this front.

The WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement can have a big impact here, helping reduce barriers to intra-regional trade.

We’ve all seen the difference that these kinds of reforms have made in East Africa, for example. This Agreement will allow us to achieve even more.

On this point, we need to keep up the momentum to ratify the Agreement as soon as possible.

On a related point, I’d like also to mention the TRIPS Amendment on access to essential medicines, which members are also in the process of ratifying. This Amendment was agreed at the request of African members — but it has waited far too long to enter into force.

I’m pleased to say that we are now just a handful of ratifications away from the finishing line. So I ask for your help to ensure we deliver on that important commitment.

This brings me to my final point, which is that the WTO can help to deliver a more inclusive trading system.

We can do this by continuing to deliver reforms to the trading system which work for developing and least developed countries. And we can do it by delivering even more aid and technical assistance to help these countries to improve their capacity to trade and compete.

So I think the WTO has a vital role to play — and that’s why I think this book is so welcome.

It is a reminder of the importance of the multilateral system for growth and development in Africa. And it is a reminder that African members must continue to play a leading role in forging the way forward.

So I want to thank all of the contributors who have shared their experience and knowledge in this publication.

I would also like to thank the co-editors: Patrick, Chiedu and Maika for their excellent work.

And I would like to say a word of gratitude to the Government of China for supporting the Nairobi China Round Table, which led to the production of this book today.   

I urge everyone to read it — and I wish you all a productive and engaging discussion this afternoon.

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