More than 100 delegates, including nearly half a dozen leaders, turned up in Barbados this week for the first Africa-Caribbean trade and investment forum in what is being seen as the most determined attempt yet at official levels to formalize trade, air, tourism and other links between the two officials said.
Of the group, more than 120 have come straight from Africa, using a chartered Ethiopian Airlines plane out of assembly point, Nigeria, providing proof that there is a sore need for direct and non-stop air links between the two regions.
Establishing a direct air link to Barbados is one of the key agenda items of the three-day forum that began on Thursday. Prime Minister Mia Mottley argued that establishing direct air links is not only a priority but setting up an African Export-Import Bank (Exim) should also be an important task for the two sides. And if such a bank gets going, it will enjoy the same diplomatic privileges and immunities granted to the umbrella Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) which is headquartered there.
“The ability for us to be able to have a Caribbean Export-Import Bank with our partners in the African Export-Import Bank is too critical a possibility for us in this region and for unlocking further the benefits of the Caribbean Single Market and Single Economy for us to ignore at this stage,” Mottley said. “The notion that Africa imports U.S. $4.5 billion in fish and CARICOM only supplies one per cent when, in the words of Norman Washington Manley, the Caribbean Sea is our patrimony, when Suriname exports as much fish to Europe as it does every year — over 40 000 tonnes — we have business to do,” she said.
Earlier in the opening ceremony, Senagalese Minister of Economy, Amadou Hott complained that it took him more than a day to reach the Caribbean’s most easterly island and one of the closest across the Atlantic to Africa, because he had to transit Europe.
There have been several attempts by both government and private individuals to establish such links over the decades but lukewarm support from various sectors have scuttled these efforts. Some governments have moved to make travel easier by abolishing visa requirements. The conference is expected to refine and improve on these efforts. Mottley said the time was now for air transport links with Africa and the Caribbean.
“But if the only way to get there is through North America and Europe, then how will you get the transit visa to move people here if we don’t build the bridge across the Atlantic through air bridges? I have spoken to enough people in the last three years to know that this is now an act of political will and individual will.”
The trade forum followed up on the first Africa-Caribbean Summit held virtually in September last year when several areas for cooperation were identified. These included tourism.
Providing additional information on a possible Exim Bank, several regional nations, including The Dominican Republic, Suriname, Barbados, St. Kitts, St. Lucia and St. Vincent signed partnership agreements with the bank on Thursday. The bank says it has up to $700 million to invest in the region if and when it sets up a branch in the bloc.
Meanwhile, CARICOM Chairman, President Chan Santokhi of Suriname, also weighed in on moves to formalize links, noting that this should be an obvious development after 400 years.
“I am pleased to see that some Caribbean companies and banks have ventured into the African continent. We need more of that. We also need African countries to invest in the Caribbean and to build partnerships with Caribbean companies. Since we are all almost at the same level of development, it is crucial that we join forces and work together on each other’s development,” he said.