Improving air connectivity in Africa key to continent's growth

A map showing the railway network between Burundi and Tanzania. [Courtesy]

Africa is the most resource-abundant continent in the world. It has huge deposits of cobalt, coltan, uranium, copper gold, diamond, oil and natural gas. It also has 65 per cent of the world’s arable land and 10 per cent of the planet’s internal renewable fresh water source. Africa is the closest thing to the Biblical Eden, the Valhalla of Nordic mythology. Yet Africa is considered the poorest continent on earth!

It is a fair assessment to say the continent has everything it needs within its borders. It can subsist without interventions from countries of the Global North. In fact, Africa can not only provide food and energy from its abundance of renewable resource but can also feed the world. Why then does the continent struggle? Why is it that one in every two people in sub-Saharan Africa live below the poverty line?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that for far too long, the continent has been in the thrall of extractive capitalists from the Global North. Africa’s vast resources have benefited only those who have deliberately kept it in economic subjugation. But there is an African renaissance that is shaking off the shackles of the West starting from former colonies of France and sweeping across the Sahel region.

Africa can and should trade within itself pretty much like Europe or America. That is what the Africa Continental Free Trade Area envisages. However, the biggest barrier to intra-African trade is the lack of transport infrastructure. It is difficult to move bulk resources from areas of supply to where the demand is greatest. Road and rail networks are still being developed within the continent. Air transport, the low hanging fruit, is a much easier proposition.

Whilst the continent is home to 17 per cent of the world’s population, it commands a paltry 3 per cent of the global air transport market. The opportunity then lies in the development of intra-Africa air transport. This would obviate the ridiculous idea of having to travel out of the continent to access a destination within the continent. It would also open up markets within the continent hitherto closed to those who need them.

The Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) proposes an open skies policy for African countries. This, in essence, is the removal of restrictions within the continent by granting African carriers access referred to as Fifth Freedom rights. Kenya is a signatory to SAATM. Already, the country has benefited by being allowed to pick and drop passengers and cargo along multiple stops in the West African region.

The pan-African alliance of carriers proposed by Kenya Airways and South African Airways is a great initiative. It would cut down the travel time for passengers to different destinations. Instead of travellers taking up to 21 hours from Kenya to Brazil including transit time, they would take just 12 hours connecting through South Africa. Similarly, travellers from Johannesburg to London connecting on Kenya Airways would take 12 hours instead of more than 18 hours transiting through the Middle East.

But there are two other barriers. Customs regimes vary across the continent. They must be standardised. Second, African carriers must clean their balance sheets so that they can start their partnerships on a clean slate.

Mr Khafafa a public policy analyst