Africa’s ‘Moon Shot’: Preparing for an African air cargo renaissance

Built more than 60 years ago, Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (NBO) is hardly a cutting-edge example of a modern, global air cargo hub. While there have been some recent expansions to its cool-chain handling facilities, NBO’s connectivity to the rest of the world is relatively modest. Still, Kenya’s largest airport has ardent fans.

“Jomo Kenyatta is the best example of a perfect airport,” said Sanjeev Gadhia, CEO of Nairobi-based cargo carrier Astral Aviation Ltd. The reason for his assessment is more for how NBO has grown its capacity than for its utility as a global cargo hub.

“The government has encouraged private concessions,” Gadhia explained, and the organization that manages the airport, the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA), has entered into public/private partnership agreements that have attracted “massive investment by foreign handlers,” such as Swissport. Local handlers, including Kenya Airways, TransGlobal and Mitchell Cotts, have also invested “considerable resources” in cargo-handling.

Although Kenya’s total air exports are typically below 300,000 tonnes per year, NBO has become a growing trans-shipment airport for destinations in Europe and, increasingly, the Asia-Pacific region, with an annual cargo capacity of 1.2 million tonnes. The cargo apron at NBO has recently been expanded to hold eight widebody aircraft at a time, plus five transit sheds equipped with cold-storage rooms, operated by Kenya Airfreight Handling, Africa Cargo Handling, Swissport, Siginon Freight and Trans Global Cargo Centre. “We have also expanded roads, improved the lighting, water and sewerage systems and provided adequate parking facilities,” KAA said, indicating that there is still plenty of room for growth in African airfreight, if infrastructure is improved.

NBO, however, is the exception to the rule. Gadhia has long been an enthusiastic cheerleader for public/private investments in airfreight infrastructure across the continent. At various air cargo conferences, he has made the case that African airports are in dire need of improvements, such as those seen at NBO. “Airport infrastructure is lacking in over 80 percent of African airports, which is hampering the development of the air-cargo industry in Africa,” he said.

In particular, the continent suffers lack of up-to-date cargo facilities, Gadhia said, such as cargo staging and storage areas, and aprons wide enough to handle multiple aircraft. In addition, “service roads are not well maintained, leading to cargo and ground support equipment being damaged during transport,” he said. “A lack of parking areas means there is limited or no room for trucks to maneuver around docks at cargo warehouses.”

What Africa truly needs, Gadhia said, is a commitment to massive investment by the governments, airport authorities, carriers and forwarders into bringing African air cargo capabilities up to the standards of the rest of the world – much the way the United States poured billions of dollars into the goal of putting a man on the Moon 50 years ago. While an infusion of funding from some of the more impoverished African countries may not be feasible, private, foreign investment will have to do. Could a state-of-the-art, digitalized and well-funded airfreight system become Africa’s “moon shot” for the 21st century?

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