Johannesburg - The plan by African Union (AU) member states to establish a continental free trade area by 2017 was on track, the African Union commission on trade and industry said on Wednesday.

“As you know, the free trade area will not be built from scratch, the regional economic communities provide the building blocs for the establishment of the free trade area. Leaders of COMESA-EAC and SADC today [Wednesday] launched the Tripartite Free Trade Area in El Sheikh, Egypt. This is a very important step, not only for continental free trade process, but [for] intercontinental integration in general,” said Fatima Haram Acyl, trade and industry commissioner at AU.

She said ministers had reviewed proposals on inter-trade at their meeting on May 14 and 15, and that the AU was confident about the implementation in 2017. The 54 member states would establish an integrated African market of more than one billion people, with a combined gross domestic product of over US$2 trillion.

There was a very low trade among African countries compared with countries from other continents, at 17 percent, said Acyl. Trade among European countries was at 60 percent, while Asian countries stood at 40 percent.

Acyl said there was no magic wand to get the continental trade area in place at once.

“The European Union’s 28 countries did not wake up one day and come together as we see it today. It took them years to get where they are,” she said.

Migration, especially of skilled personnel, would be part of the integration process. Acyl said people who drowned at sea while attempting to reach Europe and gain access to better opportunities did not take the risk to do so because they wanted to, but because there was nothing for them in their home countries.

“’Through talent management, we should be able to retain our skilled personnel. Some of the skilled people can’t find work in the continent, so they leave and go die at sea,” she explained.

Acyl said because of various laws and policies among the continent’s countries, those that were able to trade first would start, while other countries would gradually link up with others and commence trade.