CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – African countries will launch a framework next month to create a 26-nation free trade area by integrating three existing African trade blocs to boost regional trade and investment, a South African minister said on Thursday.

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South African Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies attends a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, January 27, 2011. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

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With a combined gross domestic product of $1 trillion, the tripartite trade area will include the East African Community, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, and the Southern African Development Community in a single free market.

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A lack of trade integration across the continent has curtailed its growth prospects by driving up the cost of doing business, while removing trade barriers, such as export and import fees, could promote new markets and boost profits.

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“The tripartite that will be launched at a summit in Sharm el Shaik next month will signal that we are on track to create a market of over 600 million people,” Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies told parliament.

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Davies said official negotiations will be launched later in June for the establishment of a continental FTA to embrace the entire continent of 54 countries, opening up a market of 1.3 billion people with a combined GDP of more than $2 trillion.

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However, analysts say key trade issues, including those on rules of origin to guard against dumping and tariff concessions, remain unresolved and the proposed trade bloc remains a work in progress after first being mooted in 2008.

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“It is really a framework agreement at best, it hints at what we can do but to be honest it falls way short of expectations at this stage,” Trudi Hartzenberg, executive director at the Stellenbosch-based Trade Law Centre said, referring to an absence of agreements on lowering tariffs and intellectual property, as examples.

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“The appetite for negotiating a free trade agreement that literally opens up this very large market as an integrated market space is extremely weak,” Hartzenberg said.

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