For the second time this year, the Heads of State of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) will meet at a regional forum. This meeting is the annual SADC Summit and it will take place in Gaborone, Botswana. The first was an Extraordinary Summit that was held in Harare at the end of April to discuss a SADC industrialisation strategy. Zimbabwe will pass the baton to Botswana as Chair of the regional group for the next 12 months. The meeting in Botswana is another chance for the leaders of Southern Africa to check-in on the progress of the region on political and security issues (like in Lesotho) as well as on the economic integration agenda.

SADC Summits are traditionally closed gatherings with much of the interaction between members taking place behind closed doors and with little attention from the public in the region. Do these Summits really matter to the life of the average person in Southern Africa? The unfortunate reality is probably not, with the exception being those who are in countries suffering from political instability or conflict. SADC has shown its commitment and strength on issues related to peace and security and to a large extent these concerns still dominate the discussions.

Where a regional economic community like SADC could really make an impact more broadly is in addressing the barriers faced by those who seek to trade, invest and move about freely in Southern Africa. The benefits of integration are well known and there has been buy-in at the highest levels in Africa to an ambitious agenda to link the markets of the continent together. The most recent demonstration of this was the launch of the negotiations for a continental free trade area in June 2015. SADC is no exception and it aims to allow for free movement of goods, services, capital and people between its members.

There is no doubt that some progress has already been made and this is reflected in a diverse range of success stories, such as the common payment system in place between central banks in the region and the formation of trans-frontier conservation areas. SADC is often not given enough credit for its achievements, including the implementation of a free trade area that covers the majority of members and the identification of regional infrastructure projects that will improve the delivery of transport and other important services.

One of the reasons for the lack of appreciation of developments in the region brings us back to the closed nature of SADC itself. Even a basic internet search does not throw up much detail, especially from official sources such as the SADC Secretariat’s website. There remains a small, elite group involved in the regular and detailed processes of regional diplomacy, accompanied by a handful of observers and commentators who attempt to follow developments from an informed distance (I would include myself in that group). Such a dynamic not only limits broader participation by stakeholders but also reduces the flow of input into the official debates about what is happening on the ground in the region.

In the margins of the Summit this week in Botswana, there is an attempt being made to address the challenge of limited participation and dialogue, especially between SADC governments and the private sector. The Southern Africa Business Forum is scheduled to take place on 11 and 12 August and will be the first of what will ideally become an annual platform for public-private dialogue in the region. The event is being organised by a grouping of regional and national business organisations, including the NEPAD Business Foundation, Business Botswana (formerly BOCCIM) and the Business Council of Southern Africa. It is expected to attract over 100 private sector representatives who will discuss challenges in SADC related to transport, energy and water infrastructure as well as cross-border trade in goods and services. Officials will provide updates on the recently adopted revised Regional Indicative Strategic Development Programme and industrialisation strategy.

To many, the convening of the Southern Africa Business Forum may not sound like much but it represents an important step in the region towards enhancing the engagement of a broader range of stakeholders in the debates on regional development. The private sector has a critical role to play in this regard and similar interactions regularly take place in other regional communities in Africa, including COMESA and the East African Community. Despite having one of the strongest and most vibrant formal business communities on the continent, it has taken time for SADC to acknowledge that there are mutually supportive objectives that could benefit from greater levels of cooperation with the private sector.

The time has come for regional processes in Southern Africa to evolve in a way that is more inclusive and meaningful for the citizens of the region. One way this can be done is to translate the political commitment to economic integration into a reality through encouraging greater levels of trade and investment among the SADC member states. For businesses to thrive they require an enabling environment that minimises the barriers and provides supporting infrastructure. It is hoped that the message from the Southern Africa Business Forum on these matters will be heard by regional leaders and that this will be just the first step towards achieving the common goal of economic growth and prosperity for SADC.