When the reassuring orchestra of the air transport industry was abruptly stopped by the horrific Covid-19 pandemic early 2020, perhaps only the sound of the air cargo sector notably remained, cutting through the deafening silence that lasted for several months. Air cargo provided vital capacity to transport essential goods and medical supplies needed to combat the Covid-19 pandemic that has now cost over 2 million lives globally.

For many airlines across the world including Africa, air cargo bucked the trend, after revenues and liquidity dried up following months of grounding of regular passenger and cargo operations. Several airlines took innovative steps to benefit from the opportunities presented by Covid-19, as they converted the passenger seats of their aircraft to %u2018cargo seats'; while some airlines expanded their fleet to meet the sudden demand to transport essential cargo amidst the pandemic.

Sanjeev Gadhia, chief executive officer of Kenya-based Astral Aviation, said that Covid-19 provided huge opportunities which enabled the airline expand remarkably to 42 countries across Africa. His airline increased its network to 15 scheduled destinations and operated charters to over 50 destinations in Africa. In fact, Sanjeev said his airline got additional cargo aircraft and crew during the period to cope well with the overwhelming airfreight demand.

It is instructive that for Astral Aviation, as flower markets in the UK and Belgium were hit by Covid-19 in March and April 2020, this was auspiciously "replaced by vegetables as consumer demand changed as a result of the lockdown in Europe."

Pandemic-induced cargo not enough

IATA said, for airlines, cargo revenues buck the trend, increasing to $117.7 billion in 2020 from $102.4 billion in 2019. It also reported a 45 percent fall in overall capacity, driven largely by the precipitous fall in passenger demand which took out critical belly capacity for cargo (-24 percent), pushed yields up by 30 percent in 2020.

"Cargo is performing better than the passenger business. It could not, however, make up for the fall in passenger revenue. But it has become a significantly larger part of airline revenues and cargo revenues are making it possible for airlines to sustain their skeleton international networks," said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA's director general and CEO.

In 2019, cargo accounted for 12 percent of revenues and that is expected to grow to 36 percent in 2020. No doubt, the cargo revenue made by airlines that operated Covid-19 related cargo has been life-saving. Though cargo performed well in 2020 given the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, Gadhia said that African airlines did not demonstrate much cooperation during the pandemic.

Despite the cargo boost enjoyed by few African airlines during the pandemic, Africa's share of global air cargo has not changed significantly from pre-Covid-19 level of less than 2 percent of global cargo. Moreover, as at the end of October 2020, the African Airlines Association (AFRAA) had gauged a $29 billion loss for African airlines, as a consequence of the devastating Covid-19 pandemic.

Therefore, to make appreciable benefits from air cargo, Africa must unlock potential cargo buried in untapped businesses and trade opportunities all over the continent.

Already, Africa is performing well in terms of global cargo trends. According to IATA, Africa's small and quite volatile market recorded one of the smallest declines during the crisis and its volumes returned back to the pre-crisis levels in two months or so. Africa's recovery is "due to the solid foreign investment from recovering China into the region. Other key routes (to/from Europe and Middle East) remain deep in contraction territory."

Dealing with drawbacks to Africa's air cargo

Few African airlines are cargo-only operators, and few equally utilise newer and more efficient aircraft. These include Allied Air from Nigeria, and Astral Aviation; in addition to cargo divisions of bigger airlines like Ethiopian, which operate exemplary cargo services with new and efficient freighters. In the unfolding market in Africa, local airlines need to pay more attention to cargo fleets.

Among operators in Africa also, passenger airline operation is given priority over cargo operation. So, cargo operation is mainly considered an appendage of passenger operation where cargo is tucked into belly holds of passenger aircraft for additional revenue. African airlines must approach air cargo differently as a sustainable business deserving of best standards and quality. Besides, according to Gadhia, cargo managers need be represented at the boards of airlines to accord cargo its deserved importance.

Equally, the notion that %u2018cargo cannot complain', so cargo is predominantly run with disused or retired aircraft considered undesirable for passengers need be discarded. This, added to improved cargo regulation especially in strife-torn regions would lead to lower accident rates for cargo aircraft in such regions.

Cargo facilities at African airports are predominantly undeveloped, though a number of operators like SAHCO Plc. ground handlers in Lagos, Nigeria, are making efforts to provide airport cargo facilities for temperature-sensitive items including pharmaceutical products.

The poor state of multimodal infrastructure connecting African airports to sources of cargo also needs to be strategically addressed to carter effectively to cargo in local economies; so airports can benefit more from cargo traffic and related revenue. This must be further enhanced by strategic coordination of the entire air cargo value-chain through implementation of deliberate policies that align sources of cargo from other economic sectors with air transport requirements and standards, etc.

Getting innovative will be crucial for African cargo operators. Some airlines in Africa are already making plans for drone cargo services. African cargo carriers must also embrace technology-driven cargo services, now becoming the norm, as exemplified by the recent partnership between CHAMP Cargo Systems and CargoAi.

Nicholas Xenocostas, VP commercial and customer engagement at CHAMP Cargo Systems, says now is the time to "deliver innovation faster" to support and transform customers' business processes, while bringing "more digitalisation and visibility" to the air freight industry.

Furthermore, government support is always essential in Africa's unique and disadvantaged air transport industry. De Juniac stated that "financially viable airlines will be needed to lead the economic recovery from the depths of the Covid-19 crisis."

"Government support of $173 billion has helped many survive. With potential to safely re-open borders and revive travel with testing, governments will need to add measures that stimulate demand. Such targeted initiatives will help generate revenues, avoid adding debt to airlines, and immediately generate economic activity across the value chain," he added.

Type of Product Export in Sub-Sahara Africa

Worth in $

Percentage of Exported Products

Sub-Saharan Africa Raw materials exports

$147,933 million

Product share of 52.49%.

Sub-Saharan Africa Intermediate goods exports

$69,205 million

Product share of 24.55%.

Sub-Saharan Africa Consumer goods exports

$46,075 million

Product share of 16.35%.

Sub-Saharan Africa Capital goods exports

$17,621 million

Product share of 6.25%.

Source: World Bank

Poor local production for export

It is common to see carriers fly into the continent full of cargo, but depart almost empty because of lack of exportable cargo from most parts of Africa. Air cargo operations thrive remarkably in Eastern and Southern Africa where agricultural, horticultural and other productive sectors provide the critical mass of exportable cargo.

The case is largely different in West Africa where export is subdued as a result of several factors, such as lack of deliberate policies to stimulate the production and export sectors, as well as over-dependence on imports. The tables above show the preponderance of imports of processed goods over the export of such goods in Sub-Saharan Africa.

More so, African states must consider transition from import dependence to increased export dependence in areas they possess comparative advantages. States must increase their infrastructure base and electricity supply to drive local production and manufacturing of processed goods.

There is hardly the synergy between air transportation and sources of air cargo and cargo markets, which must now be remedied by building strategic coordination of the entire air cargo value-chain continent-wide.

The director general of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Capt. Musa Nuhu, emphasised that local airlines have the opportunity to support traders ferry goods within the West Africa region.

It is comforting that the African Union Commission (AUC) believes that the Covid-19 presents an opportunity to reset air transport in Africa. While this probably indicates the increasing understanding of the needs of air transport at the highest political level in Africa, it also presupposes the inclination of African governments to support the needed repositioning of air transport in Africa.

Type of Product Import in Sub-Saharan Africa

Worth in $

Percentage of Imported Products

Sub-Saharan Africa Raw materials imports

$32,592 million

Product share of 11.92%.

Sub-Saharan Africa Intermediate goods imports

$57,573 million

Product share of 21.06%.

Sub-Saharan Africa Consumer goods imports

$103,532 million

Product share of 37.88%.

Sub-Saharan Africa Capital goods imports

$70,851 million

Product share of 25.92%.

Source: World Bank

Settling down to the cargo banquet?

With the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in January 2021, it is expected that all 55 African States would progressively reposition their economies to function profitably in the new trading bloc of Africa.

This would readily provide an unprecedented large domestic cargo and passenger market for African airlines to feast on. AfCFTA presents Africa as the world's largest single free trading bloc with 55 states, and $2.5 trillion combined GDP.

Thus, the implementation of the AfCFTA in January 2021 will be a major test for African cargo airlines to drive air cargo and trade, as well as economic integration in Africa over the next decade.

Notably, Cyril Ramaphosa, president of the Republic of South Africa and the AU chairperson, said AfCFTA "is going to be the clearest affirmation that Africa's success and development is fundamentally tied to harnessing the potential and energies of her citizens." This is a direct call on African operators to excel in Africa's new market.

AFCFTA was launched in 2018, and the secretary general of AfCFTA, Wamkele Mene, said, "54 countries have signed the agreement while 34 countries have deposited their instruments of ratification, and 41 countries/customs unions have submitted their tariff offers, including the EAC and ECOWAS."

The African Union (AU) heads of state and government met virtually on the AfCFTA early December 2020, "to consider the adoption of the legal instruments that will facilitate its operation," which is essential to kick-start the AfCFTA.

Interwoven with the AfCFTA is the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), which is the framework for liberalized air transport in Africa for the benefit of African airlines. According to the secretary general of ACI-Africa, Ali Tounsi, solutions to future airports challenges, which also include cargo challenges, must include first recognising the SAATM as "the driver of traffic growth."

He said African airports must equally "get safety and security right," and invest in airport infrastructure, facilities and technology. He recommended that airports should favour the airport network model to be financially viable, while also exploring privatisation as an option, while airports must equally "demystify charges and taxes for healthy cooperation and collaboration between airports and airlines."

Looking at the relatively reduced trend and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in Africa, African markets would be more accessible and should improve on cargo traffic than many other regions still under various levels of lockdown. And African can actually lead global recovery, and improve its own air cargo business and global-share.

Where there is a will, there is always a way.

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