The best word to describe the mood of the global economy these days is gloomy. The pessimism is closely tied to the loss of faith in free markets and free trade, the two forces that propelled the world economy for the past seven decades. The United States, long the staunchest supporter of these ideas, has moved into full-scale mercantilist mode. Britain, the original free trade superpower, is pulling out of the European Union, its largest free-trade relationship. China is striving to become less reliant on foreign firms and global supply chains. Everywhere the trend seems the same. Except in Africa.

Last month, unnoticed by much of the media, Africa’s leaders announced the creation of a continent-wide free-trade area that will potentially bring together 1.3 billion people in a $3.4 trillion economic zone. The success of this project hinges on whether nations actually do reduce tariffs and other trade barriers, but if they do, trade could rise by as much as 50 percent in the next few decades, according to the International Monetary Fund. As the IMF put it, “This could be an economic game changer for the continent.”

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