A 2017 implementation date set for creating a free-trade zone in Africa, a region with a combined economy worth more than $2 trillion, may be too optimistic, according to trade experts.

Talks to establish a working free-trade zone will go beyond 2017, Trudi Hartzenberg, director of the Stellenbosch-based Tralac Trade Law Centre, said in an interview in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi on Tuesday.

“The indicative date is really a political decision, but realistically the negotiations will take much longer,” said Hartzenberg, who is in Nairobi for the World Trade Organization’s 10th ministerial conference. “What may be possible is some kind of framework agreement by 2017, and then the more detailed provisions on specific substantive issues will take much longer.”

Three regional groups on the continent -- the Common Market for East and Southern Africa, the East African Community and the Southern African Development Community -- signed an agreement in June in Egypt to create a trade bloc covering 26 countries with a combined economy of about $1 trillion as a precursor to the continental grouping. A week later, members of the African Union launched the negotiations for the establishment of the continent-wide free trade area in Johannesburg.

Some of the issues that could potentially slow down the continent-wide negotiations, which are expected to start in April, are the lack of impetus to liberalize import tariffs, slow regulatory reforms and harmonization and countries reluctant to enter into investment protection agreements, Hartzenberg said.

“I think that it’s somewhat optimistic,” Joanmariae Fubbs, chairwoman of the South African parliament’s portfolio committee on trade and industry, said in Nairobi on Tuesday. “I do think we ought to make a start and perhaps that date will provide the driver to the timeline, to pressurize it.”

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