ROUTES AFRICA: Passion & Debate at Routes Africa Strategy Summit

It was clear from the passionate, and sometimes humorous, debate at this year’s two-day Routes Africa Strategy Summit in Uganda that attitudes towards aviation are beginning to change in Africa.  It may have a taken a little longer than many anticipated but the sleeping giant is awakening and now, more than ever before, the message was clear… airlines, airports, tourism authorities and other stakeholders need to join together to lobby Governments to allow aviation to become one of the drivers of enhanced connectivity in, out and across the continent, generating economic growth in the process.

An address from Hon Maria Mutagamba, The Minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities for Uganda, embodied the new optimism and a deserved round of applause from the audience of senior aviation executives, tourism experts and other government officials with her renewed calls for a single visa to be introduced across all of East Africa to ease access to foreign visitors between countries in the area.  This would be a major fillip for Uganda which has perhaps not developed as quickly as a destination to some of its neighbouring countries, despite the enormous potential within its borders.

Despite being blessed with immense tourism potential, Uganda lags a long way behind the likes of Kenya in tourism in terms of visitor numbers.  “So many tourists are visiting Kenya but they do not come to Uganda. But if they do not need another visa to (come to Uganda), they will visit Uganda too.  In the end, we shall all benefit,” said Mutagamba in her keynote address.

It is clear that aviation and tourism play an important role in economies across Africa and this is only going to grow in the years to come if governments wake up to the potential of these sectors.  It was highlighted during the summit that for every three tourists that visit Africa, one job is created across the continent.  The annual tourism growth across the world is just four per cent but there were around 1.3 million tourist arrivals in Africa in 2012, up 21.6 per cent on the previous year.

In his address to the summit, The Ugandan State Minister for Works, Hon Stephen Chebrot, made an analogy between birds flying south to mate and calls for increasing tourist arrivals into Uganda.  Aside from the obvious humour, this was a very serious and valid point as when we consider locations for safari’s and exploring African lands we tend to focus on Kenya and South Africa, yet Uganda is actually home to ten per cent of the species of the world.

As Dr W Rama Makuza, Managing Director, Uganda Civil Aviation Authority, as the country is land-locked it must rely on aviation to support its development.  “We are very, very dependent on air transport,” he emphasised.  But, it is not just about getting visitors into the country, but moving them around when they arrive.  According to Mutagamba it is essential that enhanced domestic access means the country can truly shows its assets to visitors. “We do not only need more airlines, we also need airports. Few of our visitors are urban tourists.  The majority of them are eco-tourists, yet it takes six hours to drive from Kampala to Bwindi [impenetrable forest] or Kidepo [national park].  We really need to work to move tourists on from Entebbe more efficiently,” she said.

This is a project that is now under ministerial discussion, according to Chebrot, and a new aviation masterplan is being developed to prepare for demand growth.  This will include significant investments in infrastructure at Entebbe as well as upgrades at domestic airports across Uganda.

Infrastructure is obviously one of the factors airlines consider when they are making plans for network growth, but it is not necessarily all about airport infrastructure as poor ground infrastructure can impact arrival levels due to the poor customer experience.  In his address to the summit, Dr Titus Naikuni, Chief Executive Officer, Kenya Airways, highlighted this as a major factor in his own airline’s decision making progress. 

“Apart from Johannesburg on this continent, the first thing that hits you when you get out of an African airport is a very long parking called traffic jam.  If you do not sort out traffic jams, you will not get visitors,” he said, adding that Africa also needed to increase safety and security standards to attract more airline partners.

Naikuni also commented on the increasing investment from China in Africa with his view that it was the “best thing to happen and worst thing to happen” to the Continent.  But, it is happening and is an investment that is vital to the development of the Africa region.  However, Naikuni noted that airports across Africa have been slow to respond and little or no signage is offered to visitors from this part of the world.  “How can you expect people to come in from China when you can’t actually offer them directions of where to go,” he said.  He also said governments need to ensure that local African communities benefit from the legacy of the Chinese.

If Africa was a single country it would be ranked 19th in the world by GDP.  “Africa is without doubt a sleeping giant,” said Ali Tounsi, Secretary General, ACI Africa in his summit address.  But, how can it meet its potential? Well, remaining sessions at the event attempted to highlight and discuss some of the key issues.

The first panel session explored Public, Private Partnerships for Airport Management and Development and if this was is this was a solution for airport infrastructure in Africa.  This session, chaired by Jeremy Robinson, Partner, EU and Competition law, Kennedys Aviation, included a lively debate and was kicked-off with some interesting observations from Madame Ramatou Magagi, Senior Investment Officer, International Finance Corporation, IFC and included some interesting views from Robinson Misitala, Managing Director, National Airports Zambia and Emanuel José da Conceição Chaves, Chairman / Chief Executive, Aeroportos de Moçambique.

A distinguished panel of senior airline officials debated the second panel session on the subject of ‘Carriers for New Africa – The Rise of LCCs’ and which topics such as can incumbents compete with new carriers? Will one formula be more successful than the other? And what will be the role of strong home based (national) airlines.

One issue that united the carriers whether they were regional or low-cost businesses was airport taxation in West Africa.  “How can we even consider offering low-fares in West Africa when $30 is not even enough to cover the airport tax,” said Sergio Rosa, Alliance Director, Celestair Group, parent of Air Burkina, Air Mali and Air Uganda.  In fact, Richard Bodin, Chief Commercial Officer, fastjet revealed that these high taxes serve no real economic benefit to the countries involved.

“We recently completed a study for a West African government and explored how a reduction to a $10 tax rate from the then $60 level would have demand.  We found that it would have a stimulated demand to a level that other taxes for fuel and passenger would have exceeded its actual current income by 400 per cent,” he explained.

According to Abderahmane Berthe, CEO, Air Mali it is difficult for many airlines across Africa to become low-fare operators.  “Traffic is low so airlines need to use 50- to 100-seater aircraft which mean costs per seat are higher and therefore it is difficult to offer low-fares,” he said.  This was a view shared by Rosa, who explained that across the Celestair Group many routes are served “not for economical advantage but to maintain vital air links”.  However, he believed there remained a good niche for regional players, providing they reshape their business and develop partnerships with larger carriers.

What is clear is that the low-cost model has to be reshaped from that which was successful in Europe and America if it is to succeed in Africa.  “There are no secondary airports in Africa,” said Rosa, while “the Continent gets up at 6am and shuts its doors at 10pm, so it will be difficult to get good utilisation,” highlighted, Inati Ntshanga, Chief Executive Officer, SA Express Airways.

Bodin’s own definition of a low-cost carrier is “an airline that grows the market” and that does not necessarily just relate to passenger traffic but also infrastructure.  “Africa has a great history of airlines that have failed,” he said. “We are already showing that our model can be sustainable in the continent.”  According to Bodin, its Tanzanian budget venture has already carried 200,000 passengers since its November 2012 launch, 30,000 of which have been at its lowest one-way fare of around $20.  A remarkable statistic is that 38 per cent of the total passengers had never actually flown on an aircraft before, said Bodin.

For Ntshanga the solution for Africa is clear.  “We need to open our skies,” he said, a view clearly echoed by Bodin, who said: “Deregulation needs to happen faster than it is today.  During our short operation we have already seen barriers being put up against new starters and although the primary function of governments is to look after their population, I feel competition would be the better option for them.”

There are certainly opportunities for development across the continent.  An analysis from Bombardier Aerospace at the summit showed that only 15 per cent of routes in Africa are served double daily.  This compares with 58 per cent in North America.  “There is huge room for growth,” said Charles Carriere, Airline Marketing Manager, African Region, Bombardier Aerospace.  In fact the Canadian manufacturer says there are 254 routes in Africa that can be profitably operated with its Dash 8-Q400 turboprop, developed from on a complex formula of O&D demand and based upon a four times weekly operation.

Enhanced airline connectivity would obviously provide a stimulus for tourism in Africa, a subject explored in the third summit session, ‘Driving Tourism in Africa’.  This discussion looked at what the next market opportunities, the barriers to growth and the importance of the overall visitor package.  Official statistics show that Africa only attracts just five per cent of total global travellers, but how can Africa grow this figure?

According to Doreen Owusu-Fianko, Managing Director, Ghana Airports Company, stability and safety are the two leading drivers of tourism across the continent and it is only then that access becomes an issue and after that how affordable it would be to travel.  “Governments need to ensure a commitment to aviation and tourism to make it work,” she added.

For John Twiss, Network Planning Manager of Africa, India & Middle East , United Airlines one of the major barriers to his own airlines growth across the continent is the issue of onward connections and trumpeted the need for more countries to adopt visa on arrival protocols which he said would remove “ a huge impediment for reaching a destination”.  United is currently “exploring markets in Africa,” according to Twiss but he suggested that O&D demand could sometimes be too thin to support an air service. 

“Leisure travel to Africa from the US tends to be more of a once or twice in the lifetime vacation and a huge undertaking in time and finance.  To be able to offer a linked itinerary to multiple destinations would be good for everybody involved,” he said. 

According to Twiss, around 15 per cent of the passengers on its Houston – Lagos route travel beyond the Nigerian city despite the carrier doing little to encourage onward connectivity.  “We have found many passengers on this route have been really creative in reaching their final destinations,” he said.

The final fourth session attempted to explore the future for Africa and the consensus of views was that Africa was on the verge of something very special.  It has been a long and arduous journey but the message seems to be finally accepted by government officials that change is required.  In fact the continent is now pioneering new technologies with fastjet adopting mobile telephone bookings to get around the limited Internet usage across the continent.  “Everyone in Africa seems to have a mobilephone; actually most seem to have two or three,” said Bodin. 

Meanwhile, Cornwell Muleya, Chief Executive Officer, Air Uganda, highlighted that new media platforms need to be embraced by airlines as they are “changing the dynamic” of the business and that carriers need to be aware of the importance of good customer service and investment in marketing to share what they are looking to achieve.

However, it was Hassim Pondor, Area Manager, Eastern Africa, IATA who summed things up well and provided an excellent quote to end this review: “China in the 1980s and 1990s was like Africa is now – now look at it!  Remember that just 20 years ago the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was little more than a desert.  Others have been able to make this happen.  We have the strategic location and a market to be as, or even more successful if we can move aside the barriers that have held us back for so long.”

Share this article

Request a demo

Routes 360 is a powerful digital platform for the aviation community to identify new route opportunities, build brand presence, communicate network strategies and access the most up-to-date industry information.

Request demo