The biggest challenge in Africa in terms of air cargo is connectivity
"With the launch of African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and new trade flows that have emerged since the onset of the pandemic, Africa is primed for a "very high level of growth" within the coming years"
Swissport Kenya's CEO, Racheal Ndegwa, has worked with the firm for over 16 years. She began her career in 2005 and was promoted to the post of CEO in March 2020. She has held senior roles in the aviation business, including that of Chief Finance Officer (CFO) and Chief Operating Officer (COO). She is one of the industry's first female Kenyan CEOs.
Ndegwa speaks with Zinal Dedhia of Logistics Update Africa about her career that led her to the current position as the chief executive. How she handled the ground handling and cargo business in Kenya for Swissport during the pandemic and about the future plans for the company.
You have been with Swissport under different roles for more than 16 years. Can you please take me through your journey?
I began my journey at Swissport Kenya in December 2005 as an accountant for the cargo business line. In August 2006, I was promoted to business controller with a focus on cargo, and after three years, I took the position of Chief Finance Officer (CFO) in which I was responsible for the cargo handling as well as the ground handling business. I can confidently say that during this time I gained the full understanding of all Swissport services and obtained the "know-how" of all business lines, preparing me for the operational support.
In 2017, I was elevated to the position of the Chief Operating Officer. I offered leadership to the ground handling, cargo operations, fleet maintenance, training and quality health and safety departments. Finally, in 2020 I was offered the role of CEO at Swissport Kenya.
I firmly believe that my long history with Swissport offers me a great inside knowledge of the company's core values and ways of operating. The fact that I have both financial and operational background allows me to have a holistic approach to business with understanding efficiency and operational excellence.
Can you elaborate on the changes you have observed in the company. How has Swissport in Kenya grown under your watch?
Our cargo and ground handling business has largely grown over the years. Since I joined Swissport in 2005 our business offering has developed to include more services and provide support to our customers in various business lines. We have added to our cargo operation various auxiliary business such as lounge under Aspire brand and full freighter operation. We now offer Centralised Load Control with the load sheets generated directly in Nairobi on behalf of stations anywhere in the world.
My role as CEO Swissport Kenya is to seek new opportunities and ensure the best service for our customers, whilst being a supportive employer for all our staff. Yes, it's been a very exciting period of development, both for the organisation and on a personal front.
You were appointed as the CEO just at the beginning of the pandemic, and businesses are now slowly returning to the pre-pandemic levels. How did the pandemic affect Swissport Kenya? Any changes you have observed due to the pandemic?
I was promoted to CEO of Swissport Kenya only 12 days before the first covid-19 positive case was reported in Kenya. Another few days later, the airspace closed for passenger flights.
It was not an easy time. During the first four months of the pandemic, the ground handling business was non-operational, luckily the cargo business remained operational. This enabled the industry players to come up with innovative ways of filling the gap that was suddenly created due to the loss of belly capacity of the passenger aircrafts. We saw new solutions emerging, such as the emergence of passenger freighters (with cabin loading), some of which continue to be in operation today.
My focus was also on the well-being of our staff – Swissport's biggest asset. We applied a number of safety precautions to ensure the safe conditions in line with the guidelines received from local authorities and Swissport own internal procedures. I provided ongoing communications to our employees, engaging with everyone during this difficult time.
We now see a surge in both passenger and cargo flights with many airlines predicting the return to pre-Covid numbers by the end of 2022. I am happy that with the experience gained during the pandemic, we are prepared to serve our clients with utmost engagement and expertise. We stayed strong and we are ready to face any challenges the future holds.
What is your inspiration? What drives you to do what you do?
Aviation is a fascinating, agile business and every day presents different challenges. I am passionate about ensuring the smooth operation in this constantly changing environment. On a daily basis I meet our teams and observe the operation. Seeing the passengers relaxing in the Aspire lounge operated by Swissport, the aircraft ready for the departure on time, cargo loaded to the maximum efficiency – yes, those are the things that drive my passion for aviation. I am also motivated by seeing my team succeed in what they do. As a leader, my role is to create an enabling environment to develop, thrive, and gain the most valuable experience.
How did Swissport Kenya perform in the year 2021? Could you explain briefly?
Covid-19 pandemic challenged the global economy and heavily impacted the aviation sector. Swissport in Kenya, like any other industry player, had its operation affected by the lack of passenger flights and reduced cargo flights. However, we were able to keep the business afloat with diversification strategies and agile management, continuing operations by shifting our focus to cargo and centralised business. 2021 was still impacted by the reduced flights, however we saw the limitations being reduced or lifted and the operation shifting to a "new normal". The number of passenger flights started to rise again and we welcomed back many of the airlines that stopped the operation during the pandemic. The cargo loads increased even further and we started seeing the potential of getting back to pre-Covid numbers.
I would like you to briefly talk about the air cargo market in East Africa, particularly Kenya.
Africa's air freight market contributes 1.9% of the world's air freight traffic, according to the IATA 2021 statistics. For me, this percentage represents a great opportunity for growth of Swissport in Kenya and beyond. I believe the challenge we are facing in Africa in terms of air freight is connectivity – we must increase intra Africa traffic to allow more efficient and fluent air transport.
With the launch of African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and new trade flows that have emerged since the onset of the pandemic (eCommerce, PPE movement, vaccines), Africa is primed for a "very high level of growth" within the coming years. This will enable the intra African markets to develop, as currently only about 30% of the continent's trade is accomplished internally. The enhanced trade will have a positive impact on all industries, including aviation and specifically air cargo.
Swissport Kenya has been awarded the IATA CEIV Fresh certification for perishable cargo, making it the only ground handler with this certification at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. What are your plans to increase the perishable cargo handled at the airport?
Swissport Kenya has attained both the IATA CEIV Pharmaceutical (Center of Excellence for Independent Validators) and Fresh certifications – the only ground handler with such certifications, not only at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport but in Sub-Saharan Africa, confirming that we handle pharmaceutical and perishable cargo and at the highest quality standards.
This is possible due to requisite infrastructure of Swissport Kenya, that constantly receives the required improvements and modifications, to facilitate the handling of special cargo such as perishables and pharmaceuticals.
For instance, to support the perishable handling, we undertook the construction of the BUP Fastlane – for shipper build perishable cargo units and construction of the (temperature-controlled) perishable handling centre, with two hermetically sealed acceptance truck docks. The perishable centre enables agents and forwarders who do not have access to their own facilities, to use, build and palletize their shipments in a world class facility. We see a trend of growers, agents and forwarders insisting on their cargo being handled in a temperature-controlled environment.
This year Swissport will further improve the warehouse facilities and management of the cool chain by creating a cold room Fastlane, which will enable perishable cargo to be in a temperature-controlled environment from acceptance on the land-side, to dispatch on the airside. In addition to this and in collaboration with our partners, we will be installing a vacuum cooler in the perishable centre, to further support the cool chain process for perishable cargo. This will help facilitate shippers who require their shipments to be vacuum cooled before they are loaded in the aircraft.
There are 14 Swissport Pharma Centers (certified by IATA CEIV, MHRA or others) globally with more coming soon.
What is your vision for the company in the next five years? What would you like to have achieved?
My vision is to grow both the cargo and ground handling business in Kenya and beyond. I want to concentrate on various opportunities, both in geographical sense and lines of business – Swissport is known to offer custom made solutions to match the needs of every client. The expansion will enable Swissport Kenya to provide more recruitment opportunities for many positions. It is my personal focus to enable our highly competent staff to develop in their work environment, and with the company growing, our people will grow too.
Swissport Kenya recently organised an air cargo community breakfast in Nairobi. What was the agenda of discussion? If you could share some insights?
Indeed, on 27 April 2022, Swissport organised a cargo community breakfast for the industry leaders from various sectors, including airlines representatives, forwarders, airport authority as well as associations such as fresh produce consortium and flower council. The meeting created a great platform for the cargo community to voice opinions, discuss the newest trends and propose innovative ideas and solutions in order to collaboratively grow the cargo freight business in Kenya.