It’s time for African countries to shape the WTO, not just sit in it

At the 50th anniversary celebration of the origins of the international trade system in 1998 in Geneva, Nelson Mandela in his speech said: “The developing countries must accept that we want to be fully part of the WTO, and that includes improving the management of the world trading system to ensure that our economies do develop.”

This was an important message. The World Trade Organization (WTO) had evolved from the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) – on African soil, in 1994 in Marrakesh. Mandela’s view remains important in the context of the now-30-year old WTO’s 13th biennial Ministerial Conference, in Abu Dhabi, UAE, from 26-29 February.

Currently, 44 African countries are members of the WTO, with nine further countries holding “observer status”; only two are not affiliated with the WTO at all. African countries currently account for 27% of full members. Notably, the vast majority of these countries joined the WTO before China, which became a member in 2001.

Despite this, not much has changed for Africa within the world trading system over the past 30 years. If anything, it has worsened. In 2023, the African continent accounted for 2.7% of world exports. Back in 1973, that share was 4.8%. Meanwhile, the continent’s share of world imports is higher than exports today at 2.9%, but in 1973 it was lower at 3.9%. 

Over the decades since world trade rules were introduced, the continent has fallen into a persistent trade deficit with the rest of the world. A significant reason for this is the character of the rules. The WTO is much like its predecessor, the GATT. That was designed and agreed by 23 countries in 1947, none of which were African – at the time most African countries were still colonies.

Admirable goals, on paper

On paper, the ambitions of GATT and now the WTO are admirable: to expand market access by reducing explicit and implicit trade barriers; to provide a platform for settling trade disputes; and to provide technical assistance and capacity-building to support market access.

In practice, the rules are designed in a way that constrains the ability of Africans to improve the world trade system in the way Mandela hoped.

For instance, the WTO does not vote. It pursues negotiation through one country, one voice: but negotiation powers are incredibly imbalanced. Many African countries – responsibly – limit their delegations, due to low budgets. 

Typical WTO practices such as holding “informal” and “green room” meetings leave out smaller economies. Negotiated agreements on issues important to African development – such as the degree of permitted agricultural subsidies in wealthy countries – can, and often do, go against African interests, or at best de-prioritise them.

Another example is the dispute system. This is expected to be a major and contentious issue at the Abu Dhabi ministerial. 

In the 27 years of the WTO dispute settlement system’s history, African countries have acted as respondents or complainants in only 13 cases – just over 2% of all cases. Fewer still have been resolved. There is no doubt that most African countries would launch more complaints, especially with respect to protectionist measures imposed by high-income economies, if they had the power, support and financial resources to do so.

A further example is found in the intellectual property (IP) rules promoted by the WTO. These are predicated on the theory that innovation requires strong IP protection, for example through long-term patents and copyrights – often attributed to a 1962 paper by American economist Kenneth Arrow. The WTO uniformly promotes these rules to all countries, with a few concessions in terms of the substance and timing of obligations for developing and less-developed countries. 

But this theory has been questioned. Instead, open innovation – where various groups participate in product development and innovation – has been proposed. 

Moreover, the WTO promotes some policies ostensibly to protect people from food hazards – known as sanitary and phytosanitary measures– or to protect health – such as compulsory licensing of medicines. It has been well documented – especially during the Covid-19 pandemic experience – that these policies hinder many countries’ access to essential products.

Prospects for the Abu Dhabi meeting

The question is then: might this 13th WTO Ministerial Conference make any difference? Can it help Africa double or even triple its share of world trade, as the WTO’s Director General – former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala – has said should happen? She has talked, for example, about encouraging a new approach to global trade – “re-globalisation”, – for instance to diversify supply chains, including those in Africa.

Indeed, both agricultural subsidies and reform to the dispute settlement system are expected to be the major items on the negotiating tables at Abu Dhabi.

But even when the WTO has proclaimed a major success, as it did in 2015 in Nairobi, promising to “benefit in particular the organisation’s poorest members”, the reality is a little murkier. 

In the past, the WTO secretariat and lead negotiators have sought to protect its reputation by focusing on the least contentious areas. The EU and the US had already reduced to close to zero a narrow range of agricultural subsidies that were finally banned in the Nairobi text. That made it easy for them to sign up. Meanwhile they continue to use other types of agricultural subsidy, safe in the knowledge that putting these on the agenda will be deemed “too tough”.

The AfCFTA is not a refuge

Now that African countries have the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), in effect since 2021, readers may think that Africa shouldn’t worry about the WTO or about re-shaping trade with others. Can Africa not rely on its own trade, and just let the WTO continue?

I would humbly suggest that this is a naïve approach. Today, Africa has have two options alongside promoting the AfCFTA. it either exits the WTO because it is not working for Africa – or, as Mandela encouraged, pushes hard and creatively to reshape the world trading system in its interest.

The latter might work, starting in Abu Dhabi. The revival of the WTO’s dispute resolution mechanism is being discussed there, after being stifled by the US since 2016. In the negotiation rooms African negotiators could collectively extract a shift in the composition of this so-far unhelpful body, in exchange for bringing it back to life. 

In the negotiation rooms where export bans on food and fertiliser are proposed as the key problems to be solved in agricultural markets, African negotiators could work to take this off the table.

They could replace these with proposals to ban “carbon border taxes”. It has been estimated that the EU’s border tax could cost the African continent $25bn per year from 2026 – an amount similar to what all OECD countries spent on humanitarian aid in 2022.

It is clear that the WTO needs a major makeover in its 30th year. Growing African internal trade will not solve the distorted market forces that have led to Africa’s increasing trade deficit with the world. If the WTO and its advocates want African support, they need to start demonstrating that it can work for Africa. And as Africans, we need to demand and propose ways that it can do that.

This article was originally published on Africa Business. To read it, click here.

Hannah Ryder. Hannah is CEO of Development Reimagined, an independent African-led international development consultancy based in Beijing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Trevor Lwere

Research and Coordination Analyst

Trevor Lwere is a Research and Coordination analyst at Development Reimagined with a background in Economics and Global Affairs. His interests include geopolitics, geoeconomics and economic development. He holds a Masters’ degree in Global Affairs fro Tsinghua University and a BA Economics from the University of Notre Dame.

Yujie Shi

 Policy and Research Analyst

Yuejie Shi is a Research and Data Analyst at Development Reimagined with a special focus on Global Trade and China-Africa Trade.

Sena Voncujovi

Research Analyst

Sena Voncujovi is a research and policy analyst at Development Reimagined. Voncujovi specializes in global health issues, Japan-Africa relations, and China-Africa relations. He served as the Editor-in-chief of Peking University’s Africa Think Tank (PATT) during his master’s in International Relations & Politics as a Yenching Scholar. Voncujovi previously advised the Ghanaian government for the 2019 TICAD 7 Conference held in Yokohama. He is the co-founder of Jaspora, Tokyo’s largest community of African diasporan diplomats, changemakers, professionals, students, and business people.

Rugare Mukanganga


Rugare is an economist at Development Reimagined, providing economic and data analysis support across projects.

Yixin Yu

Research Analyst

Yixin is a Junior Research Analyst and her focus areas is on public-private partnership and entrepreneurship. She has over three years of working experience in both private and public sectors in Ethiopia. She was the China Liaison Officer for project ‘Partnership for Investment and Growth in Africa’ at International Trade Centre, where she accumulated rich experience in investment and trade promotion.

Ivory Kairo

Communications Support

Ivory is a Kenyan lawyer with experience in policy research and analysis. She also supports the communications team through liaising with African brands, creating graphic content and other external outputs at AR. Ivory speaks English, Swahili and French

Huiyi Chen

Partnership Development

Huiyi Chen is a Research and Coordination Analyst on China-Africa cooperation and leading the engagement with Chinese stakeholders at Development Reimagined.

Jinyu Chen

Research Analyst | Paris, France

Jinyu is a dual-degree Master’s student at Sciences Po & Peking University.  At Africa Reimagined, Jinyu produces research to foster better mutual understanding between African clients and Chinese consumers. 


Jade Scarfe

Communications Support
Jade is a research analyst and communication support at Africa Reimagined. She supports with liaising with African brands, creating content and gathering China market research.

Yike Fu

China-Africa Policy Analyst

Yike Fu is a Policy Analyst and has been responsible for leading numerous areas of work, including on debt analysis in Africa and beyond, and China-Africa trade and investment logistics and analysis. She is the co-author of “African Debt Guide”, in which she challenged the narrative that Africa is in the midst of a new debt crisis by analysing data back to the 1970s and adopting new metrics to present the real story behind the data. She also developed a benchmark to compare the financial distribution of development partners such as the UK, US, Japan, France and China in Africa. Prior to her role at DR she worked at the International Finance Corporation and African Union Representational Mission to the US. She holds a Masters in International Affairs from George Washington University.

Rosie Wigmore

Project Manager | Beijing, PRC

Rosie is the Project Manager of Africa Reimagined (AR) at Development Reimagined (DR) where she supports high-end African brands with entering the Chinese market by operating services such as trademark protection, Chinese market research, Chinese partnership building, and Africa to China logistical support and import/export services. Rosie has worked with DR for over two years now with proven success in helping high-end African brands navigate the Chinese market. She is extremely passionate about her work because more African brands selling in the Chinese marketplace means African countries can export MORE value-added goods, create MORE jobs and foster MORE innovation in African countries.

Leah Lynch

Deputy Director | Beijing, PRC

Leah Lynch is Deputy Director of Development Reimagined (DR), and head of the China office. Leah has over 10 years of experience in development and has lived in China for over 8 years. Leah has also travelled extensively around Asia and Africa for research. Leah supports the strategic direction of the team across China, with a mission to deliver high quality research on sustainable development and poverty reduction. Leah is also Chair of the Sustainability Forum at the British Chamber of Commerce in China, providing direction on sustainability initiatives for British and Chinese business. Leah has also consulted on various evaluations on UK aid (ICAI) and is a specialist on development cooperation from the UK and China. Leah has also consulted on various UN projects, including providing support to the UN China team during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Prior to DR, Leah was at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) China, supporting the UN’s portfolio on communication strategies, China’s South- South Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Before UNDP, Leah lived and worked in Kenya developing sustainable water policies for the Kenyan government.

Hannah Ryder

Founder and CEO 

Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE’s International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.


We support our clients throughout the whole onboarding and sales process on Chinese e-commerce platforms including registration, international and China-mainland logistics, storage, payment transfers, and marketing & advertising strategies.

In addition to supporting our clients with onboarding onto e-commerce platforms or developing their own WeChat stores, we also have our own Africa Reimagined e-commerce stores for our clients to sell on.
Kiliselect on WeChat Stores: Africa Reimagined launched on Kiliselect, which is a foremost e-commerce store for premium African products in China and the Chinese branch of East Africa’s Kilimall. It houses brands from a range of sectors including food and beverage, skincare and homeware. Kiliselect is found on WeChat Stores, which gives the store access to 1.2 billion active WeChat users across China.
JD-Worldwide: Next year, Africa Reimagined will open the first ever flagship, pan-Africa e-commerce store for premium African brands on JD-Worldwide, the cross-border e-commerce platform of China’s largest retailer, It will sell exclusively luxury African brands from a range of sectors including, fashion and jewellery, food and beverage, skincare. and homeware.