Africa's air cargo ground handling industry is poised for a takeoff. By confronting its challenges, investing in modern infrastructure, and embracing innovative solutions, it can become the engine that propels Africa's air cargo sector to new heights.

The air cargo industry in Africa has experienced remarkable growth, fueled by increasing trade, economic development, and the rise of e-commerce. However, cargo ground handling operations across the continent face significant hurdles that must be addressed to unlock their full potential. Despite these obstacles, African nations are making concerted efforts to invest in infrastructure, technology, and specialised facilities to enhance efficiency and meet the growing demand.

Key challenges
One of the major challenges is the inadequate infrastructure at many African airports. Charles Wyley, Executive Vice President – Middle East, Africa and Asia at Menzies Aviation, highlighted, "Challenges range from insufficient cool chain capacity to outdated warehouse management software (WMS) systems.” Highlighting warehouse capacity as one of the key challenges, Paul Mwakisha, General Manager, Triple FFF, Kenya (Kenya Airfreight Handling) stated, “During peak seasons such as Valentine’s, Mother’s Day and Women’s Day seasons, cold-room space becomes a challenge occasioned by high production of fresh cargo such as flowers, meat, vegetables and herbs.” Specifying the high cost of electricity as another challenge, he stated, “it is equally a huge challenge to ground handling agencies given the high consumption required to run the cooling systems.

The lack of a skilled workforce is another pressing issue. The African air cargo industry faces a shortage of trained ground handlers, logistics professionals, and cargo specialists. Mwakisha emphasised the challenge of acquiring skilled personnel to effectively utilise new technologies, stating, "If a certain skill set is not available already, the companies are forced to hire new staff at an additional cost, to manage the systems."

Regulatory barriers pose another significant challenge for cargo ground handlers. The African Airlines Association (AFRAA) reports that as of 2023, cargo operators face an average of 19 different regulations across the continent, leading to delays and increased operational costs.

Limited technology adoption is hindering efficiency and real-time tracking capabilities. A recent study by Frost & Sullivan in 2023 revealed that only 35% of African airports have implemented advanced cargo handling systems. Mwakisha highlighted the need for automation saying, "Automation of the entire operational processes is a key strategic deliverable for ground handlers. There is a need to reduce manual processes to help improve data quality."

“We are seeing a strong trend towards e-commerce entering the African market. A larger than ever proportion of the cargo we handle is e-commerce, meaning that we have had a laser-like focus on ensuring that goods can move from aircraft to warehouse to forwarder as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
Charles Wyley, Menzies Aviation

Terminal expansions & upgrades
To overcome these challenges and meet the growing demand, African nations and airport authorities are investing in modernising cargo handling infrastructure. Terminal expansions and upgrades are underway at several major airports. For example, Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo International Airport has undertaken a $170 million cargo terminal expansion, scheduled for completion in 2024. Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) invested $120 million in a new cargo facility, which became operational in early 2023. Addis Ababa's Bole International Airport's cargo terminal expansion, costing around $550 million, was completed last year. AGL Rwanda is building a new Bugesera International Airport 40km from Kigali. The project, valued at $2 billion, will be co-owned by Rwanda (40%) and Qatar Airways (60%). The new airport, expected to be completed by 2026, will have a dedicated cargo terminal capable of accommodating 150,000 tonnes of cargo per year. This trend aligns with the positive outlook from IATA, which forecasts a 5.2% annual growth rate for African air cargo traffic over the next five years (2024-2029).

dnata, an air and travel services provider, launched operations at Zanzibar's new international terminal (T3) in partnership with Emirates Leisure Retail and Segap last year. This partnership represents a $10 million investment. In South Africa, Menzies Aviation has upgraded its warehouse capacity by acquiring the South African Airways Cargo (SAA Cargo) warehouses in both Cape Town and Johannesburg. This expansion has provided Menzies with over 30,000 sqm of additional warehouse space, complete with direct freighter apron access.

Automation and digitalisation efforts are gaining momentum simultaneously. Cargo ground handlers like Swissport, Worldwide Flight Services (WFS) and Menzies Aviation have implemented automated material handling systems and digital platforms at airports in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Morocco and other parts of the continent. In 2024, WFS announced that it will be boosting cargo efficiency across its EMEAA (Europe, Middle East, Africa, Asia) network with Cind's ContourSpect. The 3D modelling software will optimise space within cargo containers and build unit load devices (ULDs) efficiently, leading to faster handling, potentially lower costs, and a reduced environmental footprint for airlines. For Menzies, the second quarter of 2024 will mark the rollout of its end-to-end cargo management system, Menzies Aviation Cargo Handling (MACH), to its South African warehouses. This transition represents a leap towards innovation for the Menzies Cargo Network. “Plans are underway to extend MACH to the entirety of Menzies' global network by the end of the year, promising streamlined operations worldwide,” mentioned Wyley.

Capitalising on the e-commerce boom Beyond the terminal expansion in Africa, the continent’s e-commerce sector is taking off. Africa is forecast to surpass half a billion e-commerce users by 2025, showing a steady 17% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of online consumers for the market. The rapid growth of e-commerce in Africa, projected to reach $51.2 billion by 2025 according to a report by the International Trade Administration, has significantly impacted cargo ground handling operations. Ground handlers have established dedicated e-commerce facilities to handle the influx of small parcels and packages efficiently. In March 2024, Ethiopian Airlines, Africa's biggest airline, inaugurated an e-commerce logistics facility at Bole International Airport with an investment of $55 million, dedicated solely to e-commerce goods, mail, and courier logistics services.

Underscoring the shift, Wyley noted, "We are seeing a strong trend towards e-commerce entering the African market. A larger than ever proportion of the cargo we handle is e-commerce, meaning that we have had a laser-like focus on ensuring that goods can move from aircraft to warehouse to forwarder as quickly and efficiently as possible."

“If a certain skill set is not available already, the companies are forced to hire new staff at an additional cost, to manage the systems.”
Paul Mwakisha, Triple FFF (Kenya Airfreight Handling)

Enhancing cold chain infrastructure
Another growing trend that demands equal attention is the cold chain infrastructure. Africa, a major exporter of flowers and perishables goods, is experiencing a surge in demand for robust cold chain infrastructure to support this sector. Investments in cold chain infrastructure are crucial to support Africa's agricultural exports, valued at $38.7 billion in 2022 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Tom Alwynn-Jones, Managing Director, dnata Zanzibar underlines the same adding, “Time-limited options in the overall supply chain hinder growth. The biggest challenge Kenya Airfreight Handling facility in Nairobi is the lack of a real cool chain product across the whole logistics journey – we see that as an opportunity to be addressed.

Airports like Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) and Johannesburg's O.R. Tambo have established dedicated cold storage facilities and temperature-controlled handling areas. IAG Cargo, the cargo division of International Airlines Group (IAG), opened its Constant Climate station in Cape Town in 2023 for temperature-sensitive healthcare products. Swissport, which handled roughly 4.7 million tonnes of air freight globally in 2023, has expanded its existing facility at Nairobi's JKIA by adding a new 750 sqm temperature-controlled storage unit. The new room can hold a massive amount of cargo equivalent to 3 Boeing 747 freighter planes and offers different temperature zones for various needs.

Further highlighting Menzies Aviation’s expansion in Nairobi, Wyley mentioned, "We have upgraded our warehouse facility, with the capacity of cold room space increasing from 80 pallet positions to 250. The warehouse has also been given IATA CEIV Pharma Certification in 2023, which is awarded to companies in the air cargo supply chain that demonstrate compliance with the IATA Center of Excellence for Independent Validators in Pharmaceutical Logistics (CEIV Pharma) standards."

Despite limitations in infrastructure, high costs, and a lack of connectivity, the African aviation industry has a clear path forward with IATA’s Focus Africa, a collaborative initiative designed to propel the industry towards a safe, secure, and sustainable future. By pooling resources from across the aviation value chain, Focus Africa tackles critical challenges through six key areas: building modern and affordable infrastructure, boosting safety through data-driven collaboration, connecting Africa via the Single African Air Transport Market, modernising financial services, achieving "Net Zero by 2050" emissions goals, and investing in a diverse and talented workforce. This comprehensive approach aims to unlock African aviation's potential, ensuring its long-term success.

With the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) expected to increase intraAfrican trade by 60% by 2030 according to the latest projections by the World Bank, the demand for efficient and reliable cargo ground handling services is set to continue growing rapidly. By addressing challenges, investing in infrastructure and technology, and embracing innovative solutions, the African air cargo industry can unlock its full potential, enhance global competitiveness, and contribute significantly to the continent's economic development.

This feature was originally published in the May-June 2024 issue of Logistics Update Africa

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