Obama sparks the freight of expectation

The airfreight scene in East Africa is always busy. Tom Pleasant reports on the latest developments.
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US president Barack Obama’s attendance at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2015 in Kenya this July has led to aviation companies clamouring for direct Kenya-US flights to boost the local and regional air cargo industry.
Jared Oswago, divisional manager at Kenyan ground-handler Siginon Aviation, said that direct cargo flights would attract other airlines and businesses to Kenya in the same way they do
in South Africa. But such flights would also require a significant upgrade in cargo security to meet international standards.
“Currently, we’re exporting cargo to the US through various connecting flights,” Oswago explained. “The multiple connections make the trip longer and compromises on-time performance, as there may be connection delays or missed connections. Handling in the hubs also exposes the cargo [to mistakes], which can reduce or degrade the quality, while also increasing the threat of pilferage.”
As interest in air cargo to and from Africa has grown, international carriers and regulators have become increasingly demanding over product care throughout the entire supply chain. Stakeholders, such as regulators and airlines, now frequently audit ground-handlers to gauge their level of security preparedness, but still they want more.
Now, the move is towards driving verification further up the supply chain, to the shipment’s source. For instance, in the case of flowers, airlines want to verify the cargo at the farm, and then ensure it remains ‘sterile’ during transit to the airport, while on the aircraft and then on to its final destination.
David Kiptum, Siginon Aviation’s safety and security manager, said: “The default is to pre-empt and prevent security lapses, rather than focusing on curative responses. There’s a lot more profiling and moving players to a ‘known shipper regime’ with a preference for individuals who are regulated agents.”
He added: “Terrorism is a global problem that is being collectively handled by all stakeholders. All the players at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) have taken on the responsibility to tackle this issue. We frequently engage with regulators, law enforcement agencies, airport operators, catering, airlines, civil authorities and other government agencies, to share information and so heighten security awareness.”
Kiptum said that investment into modern security equipment and rigorous staff-training programmes have helped to ensure greater vigilance, which in turn has greatly reduced security incidences, and improved customer confidence.
In addition, Siginon recently completed a new $10 million air cargo terminal at JKIA. It is equipped with the latest technology, such as cargo-screening machines, and located on the airport apron to ensure the warehouses remain ‘sterile’ and that access is restricted only to authorised individuals and vehicles.
Elsewhere in Kenya, Nairobi-based all-cargo carrier, Astral Aviation, has suspended flights to the remote Lokichar basin, where recent oil-extraction efforts have stalled.
Lokichar is in the middle of the Turkana Desert n the Rift Valley, 550km northeast of Nairobi. Until recently, it was a backwater, but the UK’s Tullow Oil company discovered oil in the area in 2011. This led to a demand for freighters to fly in drilling and other associated equipment. However, the recent global collapse in oil prices, due to Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oversupply, has made the profitability of such an enterprise unsustainable. Tullow is, therefore, scaling back its operations in the area as part of a wider move to cut costs on global oil exploration.
Astral started a weekly cargo flight to Lokichar’s Kapese airstrip in June 2014, using a Fokker F27 freighter. It had planned to increase its presence on the route by introducing a larger aircraft twice a week, once the airstrip had finished being expanded this November.
Astral CEO, Sanjeev Gadhia, said: “We have pulled out of the Lokichar route for the time being as we wait for business to go up before resuming our operations.”
Gadhia said the freighter has now been diverted to Djibouti, where the airline has partnered with a local airline to transport cargo in the Horn of Africa. However, he remained optimistic that the Lokichar service would resume once oil prices began to climb again.
“This is just a short break and we expect to resume our business partnership with Tullow once there is enough cargo to transport,” he said.
This won’t be the last such move by freighter operators in Africa. The oil and gas industry is a regular customer for freighters to ship urgent and/or bulky parts to oil wells. Air cargo is expensive though, more so than land or sea cargo. With oil now at around $45 a barrel – half of what it was 18 months ago – we can expect similar decisions to be made across the continent should prices continue to fall.
Forecasts suggest it will be late 2016 at the earliest before there is any growth at all. Even that is considered wildly optimistic by some as sanctions against Iran’s oil fields are expected to be lifted around that time, swelling supply and depressing prices further.
Meanwhile, Air Djibouti, which went bankrupt in 2002, has returned to active service by first launching all-cargo, rather than passenger, flights. The state-owned national carrier had its first freighter flight on August 2. The leased Fokker 27 aircraft flew from Djibouti to Hargeisa, Somaliland and now more flights are planned.
Dawit Michael Gebre-Ab, the airline’s senior director of strategic planning, said the carrier aims to handle 1,000 tonnes of freight by the end of December. Future destinations will include Ghana, Mogadishu, Nigeria, Sudan, Uganda and Yemen. Shipments are expected to include high-value electronic goods and temperature- sensitive pharmaceuticals, as well as spare parts for the oil and gas industry, Gebre-Ab explained.