MORONI, Comoros, Apr 13 (IPS) — In February 2023, the Union of Comoros ratified the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Later that month, the country’s President Azali Assoumani took over as Chairperson of the African Union.
In this interview with Africa Renewal’s Kingsley Ighobor, the UN Resident Coordinator in Comoros François Batalingaya explains the UN support for the country during the ratification process and highlights investment opportunities in the country.
These are excerpts from the interview:
Q: Comoros recently ratified the AfCFTA. What kind of support did the UN provide the national authorities in ensuring a successful ratification process?
A: As you know, President Azali Assoumani was one of the first African leaders to sign the African Continental Free Trade Agreement in Kigali in 2018. So, Comoros was always there with a high-level political will.
However, there were some concerns about a potential loss of customs revenue, which represents between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of the total government revenue. Not all the Members of Parliament or senior government officials were convinced that the AfCFTA is a good idea.
Comoros’ main trading partners are in (Asia) and the Middle East, not the African mainland. For example, India and Pakistan. As well as China and Brazil. We import most of our chicken from Brazil.
Q: Now, what did the UN do?
A: First, the UN organized local and national consultations. Under the leadership of the Regional Economic Commission, the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), there were workshops on the three islands to discuss the AfCFTA’s opportunities.
We had the consultation workshop in the capital Moroni, attended by President Assoumani, the Speaker of Parliament Moustadroine Abdou, governors, cabinet ministers, MPs, the private sector and others.
Third, high-level advocacy was my role as the UN Resident Coordinator: to encourage the political leadership to ratify the agreement.
Comoros has significant untapped potential or business opportunities. For example, the tourism industry could be further developed. Looking at the tourism industry in the region, Comoros is the only country whose tourism industry is still not well developed. Neighbouring Seychelles and Madagascar receive between 400,000 and 500,000 tourists per year.
Q: How did you allay fears about loss of customs revenues?
A: When you look at what Comoros imports and where it gets customs revenues from, these are not goods that will be affected much by the AfCFTA. Most imported products are from Middle Eastern countries, India and China. But basic foodstuffs come from Tanzania, Mozambique, Kenya, and other African mainland countries. Importation of these foodstuffs will not significantly affect customs revenue.
Q: What are some made-in-Comoros products the country could potentially export to the larger African market?
A: These are essential oils like ylang-ylang of which Comoros is the number one producer in the world; we have spices that are beloved in places like India; we have vanilla and cloves.
We need to create value chains around these products and export to countries like Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti and others. Comoros needs to access these markets.
Q: Now that the Agreement is ratified, what next?
A: As I said, Comoros is heavily dependent on imports. Therefore, the AfCFTA must be an engine of economic growth, sustainable development and, importantly, poverty reduction.
We need to mobilize the private sector to take full advantage of new trading opportunities on the continent. We need to support the industrialisation of Comoros—facilitate trade and promote foreign direct investment.
For example, with funding from the European Union, the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) and the International Trade Centre (ITC) are implementing a project to support production, industrialisation and free trade in Comoros. That’s a good initiative.
Another initiative is the digitalisation of the customs process, and that’s with the support of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
The AfCFTA is an instrument for strengthening social inclusion; therefore, we must ensure that women and youth are involved in these discussions and can take full advantage of trading opportunities in Africa.
Q: An issue much talked about is a lack of awareness among some African traders regarding how they can benefit from AfCFTA. What is the situation with the private sector in Comoros?
A: What we have done is talk to the leaders of the private sector. We need to continue to engage them and at a lower level. The sensitization has to continue. Having ratified the Agreement, we need to raise awareness so they know how they could benefit from it.
Q: What other key development activities is the UN undertaking in Comoros that are impacting the lives of ordinary citizens?
A: Well, let me tell you this: in July 2021, the UN (21 UN agencies, funds and programmes) and the government signed a new generation Cooperation Framework, a five-year initiative—from 2022 to 2026—divided into four pillars: the planet, prosperity, people and peace.
On the planet, we want to strengthen resilience to climate change, natural disasters and other humanitarian crises. Of course, with sustainable integration and management of marine ecosystems. At the AU Summit, the Head of State said it is a priority for Africa, and it would be a priority for us over the next five years.
The other pillar is prosperity. Basically, we need to create a competitive and inclusive economy and partner with the private sector using a sustainable development approach that focuses on sectors with high potential, such as the blue and the digital economy.
Then we need to invest in people. We need to make better use of opportunities and foster inclusive and equitable, gender-sensitive development, providing high-quality nutrition, education and social protection, and the protection of the survivors of sexual and gender violence.
The last pillar is peace. Social cohesion is a priority for us. Human rights, gender equality and democracy are important. That’s why the elections next year are critical. We need to have public institutions that are more inclusive, efficient and accountable to the citizens.
We are committed to accompanying the government to achieve emerging market status and the SDGs.
Q: Comoros is an island state, meaning there could be climate change challenges. What are these challenges?
A: A good example is Cyclone Kenneth that hit Comoros four years ago and destroyed schools and hospitals. We are still feeling the impact. In addition to the cyclones, rising waters are also a major concern.
We have a water access problem. We have an active volcano called Karthala, which could erupt any time. That’s why we are always in preparedness and disaster management mode.
Q: There are also great opportunities, I guess. What do you tell anyone intending to explore investment opportunities in Comoros?
A: Comoros has significant untapped potential or business opportunities. For example, the tourism industry could be further developed. Looking at the tourism industry in the region, Comoros is the only country whose tourism industry is still not well developed. Neighbouring Seychelles and Madagascar receive between 400,000 and 500,000 tourists per year.
Comoros, before the pandemic, received only about 45,000 tourists per year, mostly Comorians from the diaspora. If I were to invest in Comoros, I would invest in hotels. We need quality hotels.
Comoros now chairs the AU, and it needs quality infrastructure for high-level conferences.Comoros is a welcoming society. I hope other people can come and enjoy that welcoming culture. And the weather is great. So, please, come over!
Q: What are young Comorians doing in terms of innovation?
A: Young Comorians like to join their brother and sisters in especially Marseille, France. The youth are attracted to migration. The good thing is that the girls in Comoros are going to school at a higher rate than the boys, which is not the same in the African mainland. That’s quite encouraging. Girls are attracted to disciplines such as law and administration and less to vocational training. So, we need to get them interested in vocational training too.
Q: What is being done to address this imbalance?
A: Youth employment is a priority for the government and for us as the UN. We are working with the International Labour Organization to invest in youth employment. Every single one of us has a youth mandate. Again, I will not forget the women.
Finally, let me say that Comoros is one of the countries that needs support, particularly investments.
The GDP per capita in Comoros is approximately $1,500. About 20 per cent of Comorians live in extreme poverty. We have more to do to achieve the SDGs. The country needs the UN and foreign direct investors. Let’s work together to support them.
Source: Africa Renewal, United Nations
IPS UN Bureau