African leaders Sunday agreed to a framework to guide the next phase of negotiations on creating the continent's biggest free-trade bloc, in a communique issued after one day of talks.
The new bloc would integrate the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), an idea first backed in 2008.
Eventually the new trade zone would combine 26 countries home to 700 million people with a combined economy estimated at $875 billion (597 billion euros).
In their final statement after the summit in Johannesburg, the leaders said the new bloc would enhance connectivity and reduce costs of doing business, while increasing investment flows to address capacity constraints.
The free trade area would include half the membership of the African Union and just over 58 percent of its population, said the statement.
It would bring together the continent's most developed economies of South Africa and Egypt and some of its most energetic, such as Angola and Ethiopia.
"It is now well documented that regional integration is one of the four factors that have sustained Africa's growth in the last decade, as well as the quick and robust recovery from the recent financial crisis," said Eratus Mwencha, the deputy chairman of the AU Commission.
Africa generally weathered the global downturn better than other regions, and the International Monetary Fund predicts it will grow faster than the rest of the world in the coming years.
"We all know that trade can act as an engine of growth," said Mwencha. "For the people of Africa, this will mean a paycheck in their pocket."
He added that it was projected that Africa would double its GDP in the next 10 years, a growth expected to be propelled by a growing middle class.
The tripartite bloc is expected to meet again in two years.