Africa is brimming with potential and enthusiasm. With foresight and commitment from industry leaders and support from governments, aviation could become one of the continent’s great strengths. Yet today, Africa’s aviation industry lags behind much of the world, the disparity visible in its run-down airports and its airlines.
That is how Hassan El-Houry and Eric Kacou describe the current situation of Africa’s aviation sector. El-Houry is the current group Chief Executive Officer of National Aviation Services (NAS) while Kacou is an African investor.
In their new book, Fly Africa, the two make a case for how aviation can generate prosperity across the continent reflecting on their experiences of travelling.
In 2012, El-Houry met an elderly woman in the business class lounge of Dubai International Airport. As travellers do, the two struck up a conversation. The woman mentioned that her family had owned a boutique hotel in Mauritius for decades. Although moderately successful, the hotel was never lucrative.
When Emirates started flying an A380 to Mauritius in 2013, the hotel was transformed. Suddenly, Mauritius was on the map. It became an accessible destination from Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and even the United States.
At the time she spoke to El-Houry, the hotel was fully booked year-round. She regularly hosted business people, tourists, and family reunions. A single scheduled route completely altered her experience of running a hotel.
For Kacou, the first time he realised the power of air connectivity was in August 1993, when he left Cote d’Ivoire, his native country, to study business in Canada. That single flight opened horizons and possibilities he had never imagined.
He argues that while similar educational opportunities were available in Cote d’Ivoire, he wouldn’t have been exposed to the same range of experiences and professionals.
The ability to travel to North America and learn firsthand about the culture in which he was immersed changed the way he understood the world and influenced the way he conducted business. It introduced him to new models and ideas that have transformed his perspective.
In the book, he says he has travelled to more than 70 countries for work, study and as a tourist.
For El-Houry, he has spearheaded NAS’ expansion in more than 30 locations, including international airports in Rwanda, India, Afghanistan, Tanzania, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Egypt, Uganda and Morocco.
“Aviation has changed our lives, yet this possibility is still denied to hundreds of millions of Africans,” they say, adding that the sector has potential to transform the lives of ordinary people.
Inside the main sector
El-Houry and Kacou found out that there is a huge disparity between countries that operate a relatively developed aviation industry and others where services are far more limited. In a few cases, there are countries with no aviation industry whatsoever.
They highlight countries like Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya and Egypt as some of the countries that function as regional hubs. Ethiopia, for example, has a strong carrier that accounts for more than 70 per cent of flights into the country.
Ghana, on the other hand, has taken a different approach, developing a vibrant aviation sector without a national carrier. Passenger volumes and cargo are mostly shared between international carriers, with a few small, locally owned airlines claiming a small percentage.
Africa at the moment has 731 airports and 419 airlines.
“This is an enormous number. Yet, there are very few large, successful airlines across the continent,” they say.
They observe that only about ten companies in Africa carry more than one million passengers per year, and only about twelve offer intercontinental flights, a situation they say indicates that African aviation is operating far below its potential.
The two strongly believe the first and biggest problem faced by Africa is poor connectivity.
Currently, passengers wishing to fly from one midsized city to another almost always need to travel via a third party or even a fourth city. Some travellers originating in Africa even fly through Europe or the Middle East to connect to another city in Africa.
Kacou recounts a situation in which he wanted to travel from Abidjan to Kampala and couldn’t get a direct flight. The quickest route was to fly to Istanbul in Turkey and reconnect.
Scenarios like these are very common in Africa.
These, coupled with high ticket prices to travel to and from and within Africa, makes it hard for the continent to realise the aviation sector’s potential.
Research reveals that, across more than a dozen routes, one dollar spent in economy class in Africa enables passengers to travel 6.04km. The same dollar spent in Europe propels passengers an average of 44.44km.
“The cheapest ticket we found between London and Paris was a mere $12. Between Addis Ababa and Dar es Salaam, a similar distance, the cheapest flight was $400,” their say.
From the executives’ experience, visas are a thorny issue on the continent.
When El-Houry was attending the World Economic Forum in Rwanda in 2016, he met a young Rwandan woman with big ambitions. At one stage, she she wanted to visit Angola, but she faced a frustrating ordeal.
With no Angolan embassy in Rwanda, she would have needed to travel to a neighbouring country just to apply for an Angolan visa. In addition, there was no option for her to apply online or by email.
They observe that Europeans and North Americans can travel within Africa more easily than Africans themselves. Canadians and citizens of United States need visas to travel to 45 per cent of African countries. They can procure visas on arrival in 35 per cent of African countries and travel visa-free to 20 per cent of African countries.
“On the other hand, most Africans require visas to enter 55 per cent of other African countries, with visas on arrival available for 25 per cent and visa-free access possible in another 20 per cent,” Hassan says.
But this is not all. El-Houry and Kacou highlight that African skies being dominated by foreign carriers like Air France, KLM, British Airways, Emirates, Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines makes African airlines unable to compete.
It is not all bad
The aviation sector has evolved significantly with the World Bank estimating the number of passengers in Africa to have skyrocketed from about five million in 1970 to more than 100 million in 2015.
The analysis in El-Houryand Kacou’s book indicates that East African national carriers are more successful than those in West Africa. The former is home to Ethiopia, Kenya and EgyptAir, while RwandAir is emerging as another East African airline.
The latter has Arik Air, Air Cote d’Ivoire, ASKY of Togo, and Royal Air Maroc. All four of these West African carriers combined, they say, carry fewer passengers than Ethiopian alone.
Africa must fly to rise
The authors argue that an improved aviation sector would have a tremendous positive impact on the continent’s trade.
Ethiopia’s massive flower farms are prospering thanks to airlines that move the cargo quickly and in a cost-effective manner.
They say some African countries produce items that could find ready markets in the West or in other high-income markets, if only it were possible to transport the goods.
Worldwide, the number of jobs supported by aviation is expected to grow by more than 99 million over the next two decades, with worldwide GDP generated by these jobs reaching $5.9 trillion.
Africa is, on the other hand, expected to see an extra two hundred million passengers over the next twenty years, creating a total market of 300 million passengers annually.
To realise this, they strongly believe African countries’ aviation sectors should integrate, improve regulation, invest in infrastructure, and allow private sector involvement to take a big part in the sector.