The three day virtual World Trade Symposium got underway this afternoon, boasting a line up of high-profile figures from economic and political spheres across the globe. TFG were proud to partner with this event, which is free to all those who register. The next few days promise to deliver plenty of insights into what 2021 has in store for global trade.

Chris Clague, managing editor for Asia at The Economist, opened proceedings, with a keynote panel hosted by Helen Joyce also including Simon Paris, CEO at Finastra, Lord Karan Bilimoria, President of the CBI, and Mukhisa Kitya, Secretary-General at UNCTAD.

“Excited and apprehensive” 

In contrast to the glowing positivity surrounding the media coverage of the African Continent Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), Zainab Ahmed, Federal Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning in Nigeria, showed much more scepticism over how much the FTA would offer her country.

“For Africa, it means we now have one big market, and for Nigeria, it presents a unique opportunity…but also it presents us with a number of challenges we must be able to address, otherwise we will not get the best benefits from [it],” she said. 

Zainab Ahmed, Federal Minister for Finance, Nigeria

Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, was among the last countries to sign up to AfCFTA in July 2019, leaving only Eritrea excluded from the free trade agreement. Nigeria had previously pulled out of the agreement, in what represented a huge blow for the African Union. 

While the FTA has been poised to lift 30 million people out of poverty, many Nigerian consultants fear increased regional integration would spell unfair competition for jobs and the country’s manufacturing industry. 

“We’re working together with the private sector to make sure our businesses become competitive, so as goods freely come into our country, they will be able to compete with the locally produced goods, and also our own companies will be able to export their goods to our neighbouring countries,” Ahmed added. 

“For us, it’s a mixed bag, we’re excited and apprehensive. We’ll see one or two years of reduced revenues, in terms of customs, but we’ll also see an improvement as our businesses become competitive and pay us more taxes.”

Improving SME access to digital toolkits 

Janet De Silva, President of Toronto Region Board of Trade also provided insights into how public/private partnerships were enabling SMEs to digitalise amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Her chamber of commerce launched a series of strategies throughout 2020 to support small and medium sized enterprises through the pandemic.

“In the early days of the pandemic, no one expected weeks to turn into months. We set up the reimagining and recovery framework. Our larger international members were able to bring global best practices into the fold so we could create a digital toolkit for reopening for our smaller members,” she said. 

While the city of Toronto may have a population of just under three million, its chamber of commerce remains one of the largest and most influential in the world. 

“As the pandemic continued, we realised COVID was creating the imperative for our small and medium sized enterprises to digitise [in the] front, middle and back offices. Main Street needed to digitise their operations as much as B2B companies did.” 

Larger supporting members and the Canadian government developed a recovery activation programme, which 5000 regional firms have now signed up for.

The process involves a preliminary digital needs assessment, where the demands of each individual firm is compared against their competitors. They are streamed into different digital readiness programmes, depending on their requirements. 

These digitisation initiatives may prove crucial in coming years, as the shift to blockchain and DLT risks leaving some SMEs in global supply chains behind. 

The first day of the World Trade Symposium left the audience thinking about their role in facilitating SME access to finance. Digtialisation is one tool, but a coordinated public policy response is vital in making sure it is attainable to all SMEs. Interoperability, standardisation, as well as a completely new approach to risk, are absolutely critical to getting the economic train engine started again.

Day 2

Wednesday offers insight sessions into supply chain resilience with speakers from JP Morgan, IADB and FedEx, alongside a keynote interview with Valdis Dombrovskis from the European Commission. Registration remians free and you can find out more here