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Room for growth

Some investment is already underway in Africa’s airports – but once the region’s economies start to pick up again more will be needed. Ian Putzger finds out more

CargoLogicAir, the UK-based offshoot of AirBridgeCargo Airlines (ABC), entered the market with a foray into the African continent. The first route of the fledgling carrier, which commenced operations in February, is from its London-Stansted base to Johannesburg and Nairobi, returning to ABC's European hub in Frankfurt.


The new entrant is late to the party. Freighters flocked to Africa two to three years ago when the continent was riding high on a commodities boom that strengthened regional economies and currencies, fueling a rising tide of imports besides a steady flow of oil drilling equipment and spares. The subsequent fall in global demand for oil has hit the economies and slowed down the influx of airfreight capacity. At the same time South Africa, the continent's largest economy, has been struggling.


Southbound flows have contracted. "Into Africa, the larger markets all struggled," reports Hermann Zunker, Director Africa for Lufthansa Cargo. He adds that traffic to South Africa and Nigeria has suffered double-digit retraction.


"The market is definitely not as strong as two years ago," says Robert van de Weg, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales at ABC, which markets the lift of its UK-based offshoot. "Not only cargo related to the oil and gas industry has been hit. The downturn has affected the income of the middle class, who acquire fewer goods from overseas."


One bright spot on the import side has been e-commerce. "More and more, e-commerce is penetrating Africa's largely untapped consumer market," remarks Slavey Djahov, Regional Head of Air Freight MEAC at Panalpina.


"E-commerce is a big development. It is mainly coming from Asia, mainly through the Middle East, to a lesser extent via Europe," says Jean-Jacques Castillo, Vice President France-Africa-Indian Ocean-Caribbean at Air France-KLM-Martinair Cargo.


These observations tally with predictions from Boeing that Africa's growing middle class will drive imports up.  The plane maker envisages faster growth for African carriers than for airlines elsewhere, projecting 6.9% annual growth for them in the period up to 2035, versus 4.7% global growth.


Exports from Africa have been going strong. Castillo has seen the market rise 17% in the first five months of this year, driven by exports all over the world.  Liana Coyne, Chief Operating Officer of Coyne Airways, confirms that demand for exports is on the rise, both within the continent and to destinations beyond.


So far the cargo infrastructure at the major gateways has been adequate to cope with these developments, operators report. "Generally the cargo infrastructure has been quite all right," says van de Weg. "Some airports need to invest more in facilities and equipment like high loaders, but it is manageable."


Cracks appear at peak times. "We do not see hurdles for growth because of infrastructure, but during peak times for some cargo, for example pineapples, there can be difficulties. If flights are only two hours apart, we may experience lack of ground equipment and resources," says Castillo.


He has seen some progress in the development of cold chain facilities, mostly from handling agents. However, Djahov remarks that temperature control infrastructure still has some ways to go.


"General cargo is handled in a fairly acceptable way, but the handling of pharmaceutical products and perishables is still behind on the continent as a whole and not where it should be. Private investments are made outside airports, but airport infrastructure, which is the authorities’ responsibility, is not being improved fast enough," he comments. >>

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