Raising the bar for Nigeria’s small regional cargo airport
Rejoice Ndudinachi is the airport manager of Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport (SMlCA), Owerri in South East Nigeria, a thickly populated region that is home to millions of traders, craftsmen and producers of various goods. In Cancun, Mexico in November 2021, she received the first IAP COP Award from ICAO and ACI World during the ACI World Annual Conference, for her contributions in airport management. In this exclusive interview for Logistics Update Africa she discusses with Roy Ezze her career progress and the thrust and prospects of the Owerri International Cargo Airport.
There are not many female airport managers in Nigeria, what has been your experience since you became the manager of Sam Mbakwe International Cargo Airport, Owerri?
It has been an awesome experience and also a tasking one. It is a rewarding experience trying to change the norm and bringing international best practices to SMlCA Owerri. A synergy was created among the management team to ensure everyone was successfully contributing their quota to the smooth and efficient operations at the airport. Reward and encouragements were used as a motivational tool to boost staff morale. What a challenging but interesting experience. My gender as a woman did not limit my capability to efficiently manage the airport. Total support was gotten from both male and female members of the management team.
The challenge I faced was trying to change the norms and break old practices. With the right leadership skills, slowly but gradually, staff at the airport are able to adapt to new and best practice. I constantly update myself with the required management skills and knowledge to efficiently run the airport and this in turn has earned me respect from both the management team and staff. But all in all I have been dedicated to my assignments here since my resumption.
I started with one airline on my resumption but now we have about seven airlines operating from here with increased number of flights. As the first female Airport manager in SMICA, my mantra has been training and re-training. I engage in trainings regularly. Learn, unlearn and relearn because of the changing world.
Nigeria has several airports designated as cargo airports, yet the airports do not have cargo facilities and typical activities, what is the cargo situation at the Owerri International Cargo Airport?
SMICA is an international cargo airport as the name implies. Airline operators have come to discuss with us on modalities of starting international cargo operation at SMICA. Very soon we shall start receiving cargo flights here. Also during the Covid-19 and security situation travelers prefer sending their goods than travelling to those countries.
Considering the position of the Owerri Airport in the remote rural area, what cargo do you think could be outbound cargo from this airport?
Imo state and neighboring states which comprise of Abia, Anambra and Ebonyi state are agrarian in economic activities and rich in mineral deposits like lead ore, zinc, calcium carbonate limestone, oil palm etc. Therefore, their produce/product can be exported in order to enhance the revenue base of the airports authority and develop the economy of the state and Nigeria at large.
Would you say local producers of agricultural and other goods have shown interest in sending out cargo from the Owerri Cargo Airport?
Yes, they have been coming on several occasions especially importers and exporters of goods and services. In fact, they are very eager to partake in cargo operations in the airport.
How much do you think the airport has supported the economy of Imo state and environs, and how would you describe the relationship between the Owerri Cargo Airport and the local communities?
The airport has contributed and is still contributing immensely to the economy of the state by ensuring it creates an enabling environment for passenger travels. The Airport enjoys a cordial relationship with the host communities and engages in constant meetings and interaction with the traditional rulers.
The airport has helped in the provision of jobs to the unemployed youths and gives concession to interested applicants who have indicated interest to do business within the airport environment. The airport has helped in exposing the communities to the outside world by opening up business opportunities. The airport also contributes her quota through the various agencies, and airlines in paying tax to the state thereby boosting the revenue base at the state.
What investment opportunities are at the Owerri Cargo Airport, and how soon do you expect to receive direct foreign cargo flights to Owerri Airport?
There are many investment opportunities at the airport; it is left for would-be investors to approach the airport to tap into the myriad of opportunities at the airport, as we have created an enabling environment where business thrives. Also from time to time we approach some companies or organizations that we feel their services are of immediate importance to the airport. Very soon cargo operations will commence at the airport.
We are expecting direct foreign cargo flight to Owerri as soon as our planned expectation materialises because cargo growth has proven to be resilient in comparison with passenger traffic. We the entire management of SMICA strongly believes that air cargo in Owerri will generate efficient economic value to the airport, the region and country because of location as a comparative and competitive advantage. There are many investment opportunities at the airport and we will be embarking on an awareness campaign to woo investors to come and tap from the myriad of opportunities at the airport as we have created an enabling environment for business to thrive.
How do you attract more airlines to the airport including cargo, and do you think the airport should operate day and night?
With increasing passenger movement at the airport and also the location of the airport in the South East region and its proximity to most states in South East and South South region, there is bound to be increase in airlines that intend to operate in the airport. We have deployed our marketing strategies to the two major markets here, Ariria market in Aba and Onitcha market, to attract more customers to the airport which will enable airlines to thrive. Yes, there is need for the airport to operate night flights, and we are putting modalities in place to address that.
You are actively involved in the Women in Aviation Nigeria organization, how can women participation in aviation be enhanced in the country?
As you know, the aviation industry is a male-dominated industry. In FAAN (Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria) we have female managers and I give credit to my MD/CE, Captain Rabiu Yadudu. Women have to look beyond the existing stereotypes in the industry. Women should be encouraged to undertake courses in the aviation.
There is need for assistance from government by sponsoring women to attend courses or subsidising cost for such courses. ICAO is following that, it has free courses for women to encourage them. Our young girls should be encouraged to embrace careers in the aviation industry by starting aviation clubs at schools, having reputable role models in aviation. Sponsoring women in Aviation conferences and other CE's taking example from FAAN to position the women appropriately as leaders.
Let us attract more women leaders, set goals for women participation. We need to celebrate the power of women. Women can maintain sustainable development in aviation and in Nigeria. There is need to create awareness on career benefits and meaningful contribution women are making in the industry in order to arouse interest from women and girls outside the sector.
Also providing knowledge booster factors that enable women increase competence in aviation like scholarships, workshops, seminars are important. Provide a flexible work experience that enables women adequately balance work and family life. Modifying the work environment to enable women contribute effectively such as providing creche and schools so mothers can work effectively without being bothered about the welfare of their children is required. Finally, giving women equal opportunities by appointing women into positions of authority that will enable them contribute in decision and policy making in the industry is equally important.
In November 2021 in Cancun, Mexico, you received the first International Airports Professionals (IAP) Award from the leaders of the Airports Council International (ACI World) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO); can you describe this world-class recognition?
I give God all the glory for the recognition by ACI and ICAO at the World Annual General Assembly Conference in Cancun Mexico. That was the first IAP COP Award. This award recognizes and celebrates outstanding IAP that have contributed to the advancement of the practice of airport management and have become innovators and game changers in the aviation industry.
I am truly happy to be selected for this award which was keenly contested. I thank my MD and entire management of FAAN for positioning me for this award. This award gives opportunity to showcase expertise and how they have paved or are paving the way to enhance the aviation community on a global level. It was a great credit to Africa. ACI Africa was the first to flash this award on the social media. This is indeed great credit to Africa and a great honor to all of us for hard work. We thank God for His grace. It was accumulation of years of extensive and intensive work in the aviation industry.
What do you see as the major challenge of the Owerri Cargo Airport, and what is your vision of the potential of the airport over the next 5-10 years?
Challenges I know we can overcome. For the challenges, we work out our corrective action plans with reliable timelines. I see this airport becoming the biggest passenger and cargo airport in the country. Since we resumed here there have been a massive infrastructural difference compared to when we came in and the improvement will continue. The management is not relenting to bring operation here to standard.