Algorithms could give the world its first ‘born digital’ free trade agreement in Africa

Cape town

(Rohan Reddy, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Craig Atkinson, Research Fellow, World Trade Institute

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement, presently signed by 52 African Union (AU) member states, is remarkable in its geographic coverage and ambition to create a single market for the continent. The agreement’s extensive protocols will cover trade in goods, trade in services, investment, competition and intellectual property rights.

Following its ratification by the Gambia in April 2019, the agreement is now set to shift the nature of economic relations in the region: intra-African trade is expected to rise by more than 50 per cent. The AfCFTA also has the potential to be innovative in its conception as a 21st century arrangement and become the world’s first ‘born digital’ trade agreement.

Trade challenges

Free trade agreements, negotiated for the benefit of businesses and consumers, can be challenging to understand and apply. Even legally trained experts may find it difficult to navigate the complex array of interactions between different trade agreements and domestic rules. These issues are compounded by the reality that legal texts are often difficult to access – whether unavailable electronically, not up-to-date or not easily searchable.

Survey data from the final report of the 2018 ECORYS study on the use of trade agreements suggests that key barriers to the use of free trade agreements include limited availability of information and that information is difficult to understand. This can mean that intended beneficiaries do not use the agreements to their advantage, undermining expected economic and social outcomes.

While effective use of the rules presents a challenge for all businesses, it is especially problematic for micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs). This is due to the resources they require for interpretation, determination of calculations and compliance with documentation. As the majority of businesses in Africa are small, the AfCFTA must target these enterprises to meet its objective to ‘promote and attain sustainable and inclusive socio-economic development’. Fortunately, legal technology can improve access to, and the functionality of, trade agreements for different user groups, including enterprises, customs agencies and policymakers.

A ‘born digital’ agreement

A ‘born digital’ AfCFTA would make the agreement easier to access, understand and apply. At the most basic level, this would imply the creation of an authorized ‘machine consumable’ translation of the text. Such a computer-friendly version of a trade agreement could, and should, equally represent any natural language counterpart. To add to usability, computational clauses, navigational aids and meta-data information could be integrated via digital formats.

Use of emerging standards such as Legal RuleML would enable users to easily search and jump between related sections. Metadata on specific sections could help users to identify particular provisions. This would be especially helpful for those unfamiliar with legal and trade terminology when searching for relevant parts of an agreement.

A digital AfCFTA also provides an opportunity for home-grown innovation. Creating a machine consumable version of the agreement would provide developers with the means to layer other technological solutions over the digitally expressed clauses, making them even more user friendly and accessible.


‘Rules as code’

Several initiatives are making progress in the area of ‘rules as code’. For example, New Zealand is providing domestic laws in the Extensible Markup Language (XML). Globally, the Xalgorithms Foundation is working to enable the availability of legislation in automation-friendly, computer-executable forms. Its alliance of contributors has developed components for online publishing, discovering and fetching of digitally expressed laws via an ‘internet of rules’.

Thus, a ‘born digital’ AfCFTA could include online schedules providing executable forms of rules to be used to automate cross-border transactions that involve the determination of calculations. To do so, it would be necessary to express relevant clauses of the AfCFTA agreement as algorithms. Creating a digital translation and schedules of executable rules would ensure consistency across the entire trade area and reduce the need for individual member states to duplicate resources in digitising the agreement.

A digital AfCFTA would be able to support trade facilitation systems and dramatically enhance the deployment of any single window. There are also significant implications for the automation of cross- border e-commerce in the free trade area as platforms would be able to fetch and apply rules in real time.

A template for the future

Because the AfCFTA is implemented by AU member states, computer executable rules would need to exist as a template to seamlessly integrate into national customs systems. Ideally, these computer language versions of laws will be openly accessible. With the rules coded in this way, individuals without trade or legal training – such as small traders – can more easily ensure they are seizing the benefits of the AfCFTA. Over time, these rules could be integrated with other systems, such as e-certificates of origin, as well as other digital tools important to trade, such as financing mechanisms, payments systems and digital identity mechanisms.

A digital AfCFTA will make it more simple and cost effective for those who engage in trade to access, interpret and apply the new rules. If executed correctly and practically focused, the benefits of the AfCFTA can be more easily realized and its intended beneficiaries can get the most out of it.

Fortunately, there is more than enough legal, developer and technical talent in Africa to ensure such a version of the agreement could be achieved. There is a good case for leapfrogging access to trade agreements through technology in the African context. All that is needed is the will to make it happen.














the European Sting Milestones

Featured Stings

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Women in video games: ‘Accept it, or don’t buy the game’

EU and China in search of a win-win agreement through strategic cooperation ahead of the EU-China summit

How to build an entrepreneurial university

We are witnessing a revolution in genomics – and it’s only just begun

Tsipras imposes more austerity on insolvent Greece; plans to win new early election soon

IMF: How To Deal With Failed Banks

Climate change is a security threat. We must act now

230 Junior Entrepreneurs and over 70 guests attended the International Congress on “Entrepreneurial Skills for Youth”


EU-Russia summit in the shadows of Kiev’s fumes

Making money from meeting the SDGs? An overarching approach to sustainable development.

GSMA Outlines New Developments For MWC19 Shanghai

The EU Commission fails to draw the right conclusions about corruption

Security Council urges countries to factor child protection into conflict prevention efforts

Containers at the port of Tokyo. (Copyright: European Union, 2016. Source: EC - Audiovisual Service. Photo: Haruyoshi Yamaguchi)

EU cuts fast-track free trade deals with Japan and Singapore and leads the trade scene

They won this year’s Nobel for economics. Here’s why their work matters

7 key challenges for the future of ASEAN – and how to solve them

‘Address root causes’ of instability in Mali through ‘aid and support’ urges UN chief

Capitalism’s greatest weakness? It confuses price with value

As Syria conflict enters ninth year, humanitarian crisis ‘far from over’, Security Council hears

What will it take for the world’s third-largest economy to empower women?

Why do medical students seek for work abroad?

This is how Britain saved some of its most precious wildlife from the threat of extinction

Parliament and Council agree drastic cuts to plastic pollution of environment

UN agency helps stranded Ethiopians return home, ending ‘harrowing migration ordeal’

‘We are nowhere closer’ to Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, than a year ago, Security Council hears

EU unveils plan to accelerate Capital Markets Union ahead of London’s departure from the bloc

2018 ‘terrifying’ for Yemenis but ultimately a ‘year for hope’ says UN Special Envoy

How can the EU hit net-zero emissions?

Parallel downfalls of Merkel and Deutsche Bank threaten Germany and Europe

Trump enrages the Europeans and isolates the US in G7

ECB’s €1.14 trillion again unifies Eurozone; Germany approves sovereign debt risks to be pooled

Break taboo around menstruation, act to end ‘disempowering’ discrimination, say UN experts

Doctors are humans too: the benefits of embracing your mental status

UN summits to urge ‘ambition and action’ on climate change, sustainable development: Guterres

Women still struggle to find a job, let alone reach the top: new UN report calls for ‘quantum leap’

Urgently address ‘defining challenges of our time’, to empower youth worldwide, top UN official tells forum

Finland, Switzerland and New Zealand lead the way at teaching skills for the future

Why does the whole world want Britain to stay in the EU?

The EU slams Theresa May’s Brexit option; sets base for own European defense, security platform


A safer, more dignified journey for all migrants, tops agenda at global conference in Marrakech

Employment and Social Developments in Europe: 2018 review confirms positive trends but highlights challenges, in particular linked to automation and digitalisation

Rule of Law: Commission launches infringement procedure to protect the independence of the Polish Supreme Court

Food safety: New rules to boost consumer trust approved by MEPs

Be a part of the World Forum on Future Trends in Defence and Security

After Rio Grande tragedy, UNICEF chief highlights ‘dire’ detention centres on US-Mexico border

The historic accomplishment of a seamless EU patent and intellectual property space

Consumer product quality: MEPs take aim at dual standards

Microsoft says the internet is getting a little nicer

These are the world’s most tree-covered countries

Greece bailout ends but with no substantial effect on citizens’ life

Why the ocean holds the key to sustainable development

Worldwide consumer confidence has shot up to its highest level for four years according to a survey of 130 Global Retail leaders

The European Agenda on Migration: EU needs to sustain progress made over the past 4 years

Can North Korea and the U.S. strike a nuclear deal?

More children killed by unsafe water, than bullets, says UNICEF chief

5 leadership lessons I learned from doing my own ‘undercover boss’

Cameron readies to support ‘yes’ for Britain in the EU

The British “nonsense”, the relaxed Commissioner and the TTIP “chiaroscuro” at this week’s Council

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s