Africa's aviation and air freight sectors are experiencing a remarkable upswing, propelled by the continent's economic expansion, urbanisation trends, and increasing global trade links. Projections indicate the African air transport market will see 5.7% annual growth over the next 20 years, surpassing worldwide averages. While challenges like insufficient infrastructure, connectivity gaps, and regulatory disparities exist, initiatives to enhance air cargo capabilities and catalyse regional integration are gaining momentum to harness Africa's immense prospects.

The African aviation and air cargo industry is undergoing a remarkable renaissance, fueled by rapid economic growth, urbanisation, and the continent's increased integration into global trade networks. As more Africans embrace air travel and businesses look for efficient logistics solutions, the sector is on track for unprecedented growth, resulting in a new era of connectivity and opportunity across the continent.

According to a projection by the World Bank, African economies are expected to grow by 3.4 in 2024. While a data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the African air transport market is projected to grow by 5.7% annually over the next two decades, outpacing the global average growth rate of 4.6%. This growth is fueled by a burgeoning middle class, robust economic development, and the continent's vast untapped potential.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has recently announced that global air cargo demand continued its robust growth for the fourth consecutive month, with Africa experiencing significant expansion in March 2024, The IATA figures show that African airlines saw a 14 % year-on-year growth in air cargo demand in March 2024.

The growth in air cargo demand, particularly in Africa, has been influenced by various factors. According to IATA, the moderate increase in global cross-border trade and industrial production has contributed to the growth in air cargo demand. The rise in e-commerce activity has also played a significant role in boosting air cargo demand globally, including in Africa. Furthermore, a notable shift from sea freight to air freight has been observed, especially for cargo moving from the Middle East to West Africa, as shippers opt for air freight to avoid the longer sea route. This longer sea voyage has become necessary due to the ongoing crisis in the Red Sea region, forcing ocean carriers to reroute their ships around the Cape of Good Hope instead of transiting through the Suez Canal. As a result, shippers are turning to air freight as a more timely alternative for cargo bound to West African ports from the Middle East.

Air cargo plays a pivotal role in facilitating trade and economic growth in Africa. However, the sector faces significant challenges, including inadequate infrastructure, limited air connectivity, and a lack of harmonised regulations across the continent.

We need to enhance our infrastructural capabilities in terms of multimodality, an area where we as a continent are lagging behind."
Peter Musola, Kenya Airways Cargo

Additionally operating an airline in Africa incurs significantly higher costs compared to other regions, primarily due to the exorbitant expenses associated with fuel and maintenance. “The average operating costs in the continent are about 4 times higher than operating in other jurisdictions,” states Peter Musola, Head of Cargo Commercial, at Kenya Airways Cargo during the recent Flower Logistics Africa and Perishable Logistics Africa events organised by Logistics Update Africa in Nairobi. Moreover, airline charges on the continent are higher, further burdening carriers and impeding their growth.

“Airlines’ cooperation, commercial agreements, and partnerships are essential to improve connectivity. African Airlines Association (AFRAA) route network and cargo coordination is aimed at creating a forum for airlines to cooperate. Another success factor is airline consolidation. Over the past 18 years, the African continent has had the lowest level of market consolidation compared to the other regions in the globe. The engagement of states, airlines, and all the relevant stakeholders is necessary to effectively achieve the required outcomes on airline consolidation in Africa,” says Abderahmane Berthé, Secretary General, AFRAA.

Berthé also highlighted significant factors such as trade and tourism development. He pointed out that intra-Africa trade currently stands at less than 20 percent, in stark contrast to over 50 percent in other regions. Similarly, intra-Africa tourism remains relatively limited, with the focus often being on tourism from non-African regions. Berthé emphasised the importance of facilitating air travel through visa openness, noting that currently, 50 percent of African citizens require a visa to travel within Africa.

Initiatives like the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) are aimed at addressing these challenges by promoting open skies policies, liberalising air services, and facilitating the movement of goods across borders.

“In recent years, the air cargo industry in Africa has become one of the fastest-growing sectors; during the next five years, trade is expected to climb by 15-20%. The export of perishable goods, including as flowers from Kenya, fruits from South Africa, and Cairo, is what is fueling the expansion and presents significant potential for economic development throughout the continent. The goal across the African continent is raising quality standards so that African exports can more easily compete with goods coming from South America and other regions of the world. Improving air cargo capacity provides a growth platform for the entire economy – at Swissport, we see our success hand-in-hand with the success of the entire economic ecosystem,” says Racheal Ndegwa, CEO of Swissport Kenya.

When it comes to infrastructure and to support the growth of the aviation and air cargo sectors, African nations are investing heavily in upgrading and expanding their airport infrastructure. Major airport projects are underway in countries like Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, enhancing capacity, improving operational efficiency, and catering to the increasing demand for passenger and cargo services.

Improving air cargo capacity provides a growth platform for the entire economy.”
Racheal Ndegwa, Swissport Kenya

Cargo Hubs and Logistics Parks play a crucial role in the African air cargo logistics sector, particularly in facilitating the efficient movement of goods across the continent. These facilities serve as strategic locations for the sorting, consolidation, and distribution of cargo, enhancing connectivity and reducing transit times.

Ethiopian Cargo has recently inaugurated a new e-commerce logistics facility, investing USD 55 million. This dedicated warehouse, designed for e-commerce goods, mail, and courier services, represents a significant advancement for the African continent's industry. It positions Addis Ababa as the primary cross-border e-commerce logistics hub for Africa and beyond.

"The e-commerce logistics facility is a significant breakthrough for Ethiopian Airlines Group and the entire African economy. We have implemented high-end technologies in the infrastructure that revolutionise the way goods are transported and delivered in the e-commerce industry in Africa. Through this facility, Ethiopian Airlines paves the way for development of e-commerce services in Ethiopia and the African continent. Built on 15,000 square meters of area, the facility boasts a capacity to handle 150,000 tons annually,” says, Mesfin Tasew, CEO of Ethiopian Airlines Group.

“Swissport will keep making investments to improve our capacity to handle cargo with temperature control. Swissport Kenya, one of our worldwide centers of excellence, has improved its perishable center by adding 750 square meters of connected cold warehouses that provide direct access from the airside to the hub of perishables. There is enough for up to 110 airplane pallets in the cold warehouse. Apart from the floral corridor, we've also constructed a vacuum chiller. This enhances our capacity to guarantee the preservation of the cold chain and the safeguarding of the produce's integrity. Additionally, we are modernising our facilities in Dar es Salaam, where Swissport operates the world's largest facility for the export of fresh meat production,” says, Ndegwa of Swissport Kenya.

Image source: Swissport Kenya

During the recent Flower Logistics Africa and Perishable Logistics Africa events organised by Logistics Update Africa in Nairobi, Caleb Kositany, Chairman of the Board of Kenya Airports Authority, emphasised the expansion plans for various airports. These plans encompass major airports such as Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), Kisumu International Airport, Eldoret International Airport, and Moi International Airport.

Key among these developments are the construction of a new terminal building at JKIA, the expansion of cargo facilities, and the lengthening of Eldoret's runway.

IATA has introduced the "Focus Africa" initiative with the objective of bolstering the aviation sector's impact on the economic and social advancement of the African continent. This initiative strives to unite resources from public and private stakeholders to achieve its goals.

“Focus Africa" outlines six key areas for advancement: safety, infrastructure, connectivity, finance & distribution, sustainability, and skilled workforce development. The effective implementation of SAATM will play a crucial role in driving progress across these fronts, especially in addressing challenges to improve connectivity within the continent.

Ensuring the highest levels of safety and security is paramount for the aviation industry. Initiatives such as the ICAO's Comprehensive Regional Implementation Plan for Aviation Safety in Africa (AFI Plan) and the African Development Bank's Infrastructure Investment Programme aim to address these issues through targeted investments, capacity building, and regulatory harmonisation.

As the aviation industry continues to grow, addressing its environmental footprint through the adoption of sustainable practices and technologies has also become increasingly important.

African airlines are engaging in a range of attainable initiatives to mitigate the environmental impact of aviation. These efforts encompass the adoption of newer, fuel-efficient aircraft, recycling practices, utilisation of new technologies, development of systems, strategic route and schedule planning, and optimising flight paths to minimise fuel consumption. Some recent examples include Ethiopian Airlines' order of Boeing 777-9 jets.

The e-commerce logistics facility is a significant breakthrough for Ethiopian Airlines Group and the entire African economy.”
Mesfin Tasew, Ethiopian Airlines Group

The airlines are also expanding their capacity. Ethiopian Cargo has recently announced the addition of two freighter destinations to its global network. The airline will offer twice-weekly air cargo service to and from Hyderabad and Ahmedabad. These are Ethiopian Cargo’s fifth and sixth destinations in India, following New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Bangalore. Meanwhile, Kenya Airways Cargo has put its second Boeing 737-800 freighter into service, aiming to capitalise on the increased capacity to meet the growing sea-air demand to West Africa.

As Africa continues its journey toward economic growth and regional integration, the aviation and air cargo industry will play a pivotal role in unlocking the continent's vast potential. By addressing infrastructural deficiencies, harmonising regulations, and fostering collaboration among stakeholders, African nations can leverage the power of air connectivity to facilitate trade, attract investment, and promote sustainable development.

The future of African aviation and air cargo is one of immense promise, where efficient logistics solutions, technological advancements, and sustainable practices converge to drive economic prosperity and foster greater regional integration. As the world looks to Africa as an emerging market, the skies above the continent will be a vital gateway, connecting businesses, people, and cultures, and propelling Africa toward a brighter and more prosperous future.

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