Countries must work together to "level up" their regions in order to make the recently launched African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) a success, a former Chief Administrator at Coca Cola turned political leader has suggested.
Alexander B. Cummings Jr, currently the standard bearer of the Alternative National Congress (ANC) in Liberia, said: "International structures must offer nations opportunities to complement and compete with each other and allow the private sector to operate with efficiency."
He was speaking during the 2021 Horasis Global Meeting, which was held virtually on Tuesday.
In its 15 years of existence, Portugal-based Horasis has been hosting high-level gatherings to offer solutions to global challenges.
Mr Cummings, who spent 20 years at Coca Cola, told the annual meeting of decision makers from business, government and civil society: "Regional economic structures can boost competition with better regulations and anti-competitive rules.
"AfCFTA is a good example of this – if countries allow it to work.
"Its benefits will soon become evident."
He went on: "Poorer nations must operate on a level playing field with their stronger neighbours, as this rewards innovation and excellence.
"Wealthier countries investing in poorer neighbours pays off for all.
"This spurs economic activity back into the investor country, builds better bilateral and regional ties and builds security and stability.
"This increases equality and generates opportunity on an ever-increasing scale, with a disproportionate benefit to poorer nations," Mr Cummings added.
He was contributing to the discussion during the session on cooperating while developing national competitiveness, which noted that all nations pursued competitive traits despite differing in their ability to compete in the international arena.
At a later session on Africa as the world's engine of growth, Mr Cummings's call for regional cooperation was buttressed by Béata Habyarimana, Rwanda's Minister for Trade and Industry.
She said regional industries should be established in Africa for countries to take advantage of economies of scale that would be beneficial to the growth of AfCFTA, whose secretariat is based in Accra.
The meeting noted that with Africa having the world's youngest population, and would soon represent one-fifth of the global population, the continent "is poised to become the world's engine of growth".
Drawing on his 40 years of international business experience, Mr Cummings said: "International success starts at home.
"Nations must create the right environment for innovation to thrive and therefore build an internationally-attractive offering.
"By improving and investing in the right areas at home – particularly in strengthening the rule of law and clamping down on corruption – countries can give themselves the best chance of making long-term, significant changes for future generations."
He emphasised that the rule of law was critical to building confidence and attracting foreign investment, while anti-corruption activities and security were equally crucial.
"Reforms must benefit all, not just urban centres, and education must be placed at the heart of long-term growth.
"Too many countries are being held back by poor leadership and a lack of vision," Mr Cummings added.
He called for more emphasis to be placed on private sector commercial experience that would be "vital to building long-term economic success".
He continued: "Nations must look to the private sector to understand competitive advantages and build mutually-beneficial international cooperation.
"Business must fly the flag and be the catalyst for growth."
Noting that the economic foundation of many countries in Africa was natural resources, Mr Cummings said: "The traditional sectors such as mining and agriculture must receive investment to improve efficiency and provide a base-level of income to fund further development and economic diversification.
"The real asset these countries have is their people and governments must work with the private sector to speed up knowledge transfer and fuel jobs growth."
He said this could be achieved through tax breaks and other incentives, adding: "Government has the chance to identify and lead on specific sectors."
Mr Cummings suggested that African governments should focus on working with multinationals on public-private partnership projects, particularly in infrastructure, which had long-term benefits by tackling vital power and communications connectivity problems "that hold poorer countries back from making major gains".
Mr Cummings said governments should help develop small businesses and support them.
Crucially, he said governments should back "national champions internationally, while ensuring an oligarchy does not develop domestically".
He admitted that this was a "difficult balance to strike".
But by harmonising trade policies, goods and services, helped by technology, "countries, regions, and everyone" would benefit, Mr Cummings said.