When it comes to competing in the global economy, most African nations are close to the bottom, held back by unstable regional markets that inhibit efficiency and constrain economic growth.

That may soon change as African leaders have officially launched a continental free-trade zone on Sunday, with the long sought-after agreement hailed as a historic moment for the continent’s impoverished countries. If successful, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) would unite 1.3 billion people, create a $3.4 trillion economic bloc, and usher in a new era of development.

It is hoped that AfCFTA – the largest since the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1994 – will help unlock Africa’s long-stymied economic potential by boosting intra-regional trade, strengthening supply chains, and spreading expertise.

Not long ago, the International Monetary Fund described the free-trade zone as a potential “economic game changer” of the kind that has boosted growth in Europe and North America.