-Written by Onajite Emerhor

As an African born and bred woman, I am encouraged by the new wave of positive stories about Africa, but having first-hand experience of some of the difficulties our continent faces, it is clear that we cannot ignore areas that require vast improvement. Chief among these is the lack of interconnectivity and intra-Africa trade restrictions that can be solved out rightly by government policies directed towards fostering integration and international trade, and quashing border restrictions between countries.

While it is imperative that key private sector players and emerging entrepreneurs play a role in fostering Africa’s self-development, it is equally essential for African state officials and policymakers to create a more conducive business environment where all hindrances and bottlenecks affecting Pan-African trade and investment are dealt with. High on this list are the insurmountable visa issues caused by restrictive country barriers and experienced by African nationals including small and large business owners seeking new opportunities and ventures in other African markets. This principal issue came to the fore when the inaugural Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurs converged in Nigeria in July 2015.

Bringing together 1000 emerging African entrepreneurs from 51 countries to one location – for a two-day boot-camp of intensive business training, panel sessions on entrepreneurship, inspirational speeches from guests including Nigeria’s Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, leadership lectures and networking opportunities – is unprecedented and by no means an easy feat. This is however exactly what the team at the Tony Elumelu Foundation accomplished in July this year, as part of the activities for the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme.

Vis à visa
As part of my role on the Entrepreneurship Programme for the Tony Elumelu Foundation, I was responsible for handling the flights and visa information for all our entrepreneurs; and working with local partners, I was charged with the mammoth task of getting the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurs to bootcamp safely, in a timely fashion and within budget since the Foundation bore the expense.

The most challenging part of our arrangements involved acquiring visas for all four hundred (400) entrepreneurs who needed permits to be allowed entry to Nigeria in order to attend the boot-camp session (the remaining entrepreneurs already reside in Nigeria and other ECOWAS member countries).

We experienced exceptional difficulty in the case of three Malagasy entrepreneurs, as there is no Nigerian embassy in their country, yet they required Nigerian visas. This presented a clear gap in the ability of us as Africans to connect with one another for tourism, trade and other bilateral relations. We made the case to the Johannesburg based Nigerian embassy, but eventually had to opt for visa-on-arrival for them, even though these visas were processed at exorbitant fees and in foreign currency.

The other challenges we faced included wide variations in visa fees per country; inflated processing fees; delays in receiving the visa after approval, typically for weeks on end; limited or deliberate misinformation on immigration policies leading to a forced reliance on ‘hear-say’; short and inconsistent application centre opening hours, amongst others – which led to a joint loss of resources and hours of work productivity.

As said by Aliko Dangote at the launch of his cement plant in Zambia earlier this year, “Only 14 out of Africa’s 54 countries offer visa upon arrival. It is unacceptable that Americans have easier access to Africa than we do as Africans. This is another obstacle to Africans investing in our continent.” South Africa allows visa freedom for 76 countries – of which only 12 are African. Algeria gives visa-free allowance to only five other African countries. The fact that an EU or United States national experiences fewer travel restrictions in almost all African countries, while other African citizens must confront onerous visa processes cannot be ignored any longer.

Outside of visa issues, transportation costs present another impediment to pan-African travel. It is cheaper and easier to travel from Nigeria to Germany than from Nigeria to Guinea Conakry as no direct flights exist. A typical intra-Africa flight can cost up to 1000 USD as there are no local examples of low-cost commercial airlines such as those that exist in the west like Easy Jet and Ryan Air. For our entrepreneurs – the lifeblood of Africa’s development – exclusionary visa policies and expensive travel stifle innovation and opportunities for partnerships, knowledge transfer and skills development.

Similarly, numerous export and import restrictions affect the purchase of raw materials and the distribution of finished products thereby restraining growth. A seamless African border will allow for an increased daily volume of transactions of good and services between countries and import waivers will foster intra-continental trade. It is a matter of urgency that African governments unite to create an enabling environment that encourages organic growth via trade and allows integration to thrive.

A way forward?
To overcome, I believe that Africa must look outwards for inspiration. The European Union (EU) with 28 member states, enacts policy to ensure the free movement of people, goods, services and capital across all its countries. Twenty-two out of twenty-eight EU member states form the Schengen area which has abolished all passport and border controls between members. Similar areas can be replicated in Africa.

The African Union (AU) has a mandate to promote peace and security, achieve greater unity, raise the living standards of all African people, and promote democratic principles and sustainable development. But in order to achieve greater unity, raise living standards and enable sustainable development, our governments must first eliminate excessive travel regulations and border controls that unfairly yoke prospective African visitors.

In order to move forward, I proffer two solutions – the creation of a single free-trade zone system across Africa, and a complete overhaul of existing immigration laws on the continent. A free-trade zone will open up the continent, allowing goods, services and innovations to be freely moved and transferred; while immigration reforms will enable African citizens enjoy easy mobility between countries and regions, eliminating inefficient micro-borders and needless divisions.

Let us commit to building the new Africa where all 54 African countries share one border, and one vision – for growth sake.

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