PRETORIA, An agreement for an African free trade area is expected to be ready for signature by the continent's Heads of State and government when they hold their next summit in March next year, says the South African department of Trade and Industry.

The department said in a statement here Tuesday that 4th African Union (AU) Ministers of Trade Meeting in Niger had achieved progress on the draft agreement establishing the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA), as well as the Protocols on Trade in Goods and Trade in Services. South Africa was represented at the two-day meeting in Niamey on Dec 1 and 2 by Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies.

While there is still outstanding work on some of the draft texts, it is expected that the agreement establishing the CFTA and the Protocol on Trade in Services will be concluded for signature by the AU Heads of State and Government in March 2018. The finalization of the negotiations on the Protocol on Trade in Goods and its Annexes will continue thereafter, said the department.

The CFTA establishes an integrated continental market of 1.2 billion people with Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of over 2.0 trillion US dollars which will facilitate the movement of goods and services across the continent.

This will unlock sustainable growth and development and promote intra-Africa trade. It will also provide preferential access for South African goods and services into the rest of the continent.

Davies emphasized the importance of Africa's development integration agenda that combines market integration with industrial and infrastructure development. The Minister said the conclusion of the CFTA would be a significant milestone in Africa's integration process and the CFTA should promote industrial development and the development of regional value-chains.

The meeting, which was opened by Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou, also received an update on the State of Play in the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations in preparation for the 11th Ministerial Conference (MC11).

The meeting agreed on the need for African countries to participate in the conference to ensure that African interests are advanced.

Davies reiterated that the African continent should ensure that the outcomes of MC11 support the economic transformation agenda of the continent as entailed in Agenda 2063 and that African countries should engage to preserve policy space to industrialise.

The WTO MC11 is scheduled to take place from Dec 10 to 13 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.