Cairo - Africa needs better road, air and sea transport to realise the dream of a Cape-to-Cairo free trade zone and reduce dependence on European markets, officials from the continent's two biggest economies said on Tuesday.
Hundreds of Egyptian and South African businessmen were meeting in Cairo as part of a high-level state visit that included President Jacob Zuma, aimed at bolstering currently weak trade ties between the two countries.
More robust regional trade could help Africa unlock its economic potential, but while many trade arrangments already exist, infrastucture has lagged the continent's needs and complicated trade between its countries.
Air travel between some parts of Africa, for instance, can still require a layover overseas.
"If you wanted to reach some countries on the continent, you'd have to go to Europe first, then sleep on the way, wake up in the morning, wait until sunset and then fly back to Africa. That must come to an end," Zuma said at the conference.
"And nobody else can do it except ourselves."
The two countries are trying to seal a free trade deal that would encompass the 19-country Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), the 15-country Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the East African common market.
Such a pact could cover 700 million people in the world's poorest continent and help African countries keep pace with economies like China and India, which benefit from large domestic consumer bases.
But this will take more than just deals on paper.
"We have to have the access by land, by sea, by air. We need to increase the access dramatically," Egyptian Trade Minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid on the sidelines of the conference.
"So far it's been taking forever, I hope that things will start to move," he told Reuters, adding politics and the difficulty of crossing 12 to 15 countries' borders could also be a hurdle to getting the trade zone going.
Africa now has some 30 regional trade arrangements, but receives less than 4% of global foreign direct investment, partly because copious red tape and corruption tend to discourage foreign business.
South Africa exported just R1.2bn worth of goods to Egypt and imported R231.3m worth from the Arab country in 2009.
Egyptian and South African officials and businessmen said they saw a chance to improve these figures by encouraging investment and trade in fields such as automotives, energy, agro-processing, tourism and technology.
Tuesday's meeting was the biggest state visit between the two African countries since at least 1994.
A delegation of Egyptian officials and businessmen is expected to visit South Africa in February. Continuing talks on the Cape-to-Cairo free trade zone will also be on the agenda.