Ground handling in West Africa is essential to support expected increase in cargo traffic. Mr. Basil Agboarumi, Managing Director & Chief Executive Officer, Skyway Aviation Handling Company (SAHCO), speaks of tremendous investments and the recent public offer issued by the company in the efforts to maintain excellent ground handling services. He emphasizes on the need for speed, safety and excellence in ground handling services in Nigeria in this exclusive interview with Aviation & Allied Business.
Q: Recently, you became the MD/CEO of SAHCO Plc., from the position of an Acting MD. Can you recount your experience so far?
A: I return the glory to God because it is not everyone who starts from the scratch that has the opportunity to sit on this seat. So it is just the grace of God that I have been enjoying. I have been in the company for quite some time and I have operated in different departments supporting the growth of the business. But now I am a player in a different aspect of the scheme of things helping to actualize the goals of the company as Managing Director.
Before now I have only seen one aspect of the company; but sitting here now I have to provide leadership for every unit. So I have a wider and larger task now compared to what I used to have. Of course, I will say it has been challenging but God has been faithful. Also, my team has been very supportive; they make the work easier and ensure that they are professional in all they do.
Q: What do you expect from SAHCO Initial Public Offering (IPO)?
A: SAHCO Initial Public Offering (IPO) is a gift to Nigerians. The then Skyway Aviation Handling Company Limited (SAHCOL), to the Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE) and the government, was a very successful story and so the BPE is proud to push out SAHCOL as a test case of successful privatization. So we are celebrating the successful story of privatization.
When SAHCOL was privatized in the year 2009, an agreement was made with the Bureau of Public Enterprise that after a period of time, a certain percentage of the company will be divested or sold out to the public. So what we are doing as a company that values integrity is respecting this agreement that was raised in 2009. So that is first the major reason why we are going public. And also it is for Nigerians to have a feel of what it takes to be a shareholder of a company like ours. Judging from where we are coming from, we have exceeded and surpassed the expectations of those who sold the company in 2009. So this is the reason for the IPO.
Q: Former SAHCOL put in place enormous investment in ground handling which is notable across the continent. What impact has these investments made to the company and what are the expectations still from the investments?
A: I have not seen it in the history of Nigeria where massive deployment of such brand new equipment comes into Nigeria. Up till about four weeks ago, we are operating from about 17 airports in Nigeria, but now about 19 because we are commencing operations in Bayelsa and we are also deploying to Ibadan. That takes us to 19 airports.
Before now, because of what we have, we couldn’t get airlines; but with this new change, the story changed for the better for our organization to the point that within that period of time from 2009 to now, we have most of the airlines that have entered Nigeria that have preferred to do business with us. As of today, we have one of the best cargo warehouses in Africa and of course the best in West Africa. It is fully automated with cold rooms running 24 hours. We have freezers and other facilities that an international cargo warehouse operator should have.
Our staff are well-trained and motivated. We have also been able to get RA3 certification which enables us to take cargo to European nations. So we have all these changes and of course our management too. Our staff strength too has also been beefed up and all these have endeared airlines to us. As at today, we have about 30 airlines that do business with us.
Q: How about the airports infrastructure, what do you have as limitations like inter-modal transport system, and others?
A: The best way aviation in Nigeria should go is cooperation. When you talk about one of the best run airports in the world, you talk of the Singapore Airport. What have they succeeded in doing? They discovered that aviation is a community and you cannot come in and say you want to stand on your own whether you are an airline or a ground handling company. We must join hands together and work together because when something goes wrong with one player in the industry, it goes round.
For example, I just told you in our warehouse we have freezers and fridges in our cold room that must be kept running because if we want to attract some kinds of shipment like perishables into the country from other parts of the world, then you have to provide the facility. There should be available electricity in the environment to run things.
Also, airports and terminals should be built with the input of the ground handling companies because the ground-handlers manage the terminal aside the security agents who are positioned where they should be; others are ground-handlers. At the boarding gates they are there. At the ramp they are there. When you even want to conceptualize the building of an airport, you have to sit down with the ground-handlers. Yes, the challenges are quite much but by the grace of God, we are surmounting them and coming onto greater glory.
Q: At SAHCO, do you have more volume of exports than imports, and what are your experiences and expectations?
A: We are a gateway to import and export in aviation just as in maritime. For years, Nigeria has been an import-receiving country. You will understand that at the seaport there were no place to receive export; it used to be there those days of the cocoa and the groundnut pyramid. We used to have those sections but after a while they disappeared, but I think recently things began to change and that also for aviation, but the volumes are still not massive. Till today the imports are still higher than the exports.
The imports are picking up and of course you have to understand that it does not solely rest on aviation or on us as a ground handling company; it now depends on the country who determines what to send out.
Q: How do you help to stimulate or encourage the sources of air cargo in the economy, because there has to be volumes for export before the ground handlers will come in?
A: Yes, we are talking. There was a time we came up with a forum we called the Exports Forum. We are talking with some other people from outside, but it is something that is quite bigger than us so we can only encourage. For example, talking of farm produce, the Ministry of Agriculture has to be involved and so many departments and other agencies. As the agents are here doing their own, for the packaging, brand experts and advertisers along with other agencies have to be involved.
Do you imagine the volumes of yams we farm in this part of the world? Do you know that most of the yams that are consumed abroad are taken from Ghana and these yams are from Nigeria? Even among our neighbours, they pick from us, do the packaging and then export. Most of the pineapples that are shipped out of this country are from our neighbouring country, Benin Republic. They package them and ship out through our airports. So it’s just for people to do things rightly and to the right kinds of standards.
Q: Are you looking into operating in West African airports or other places within the continent?
A: We are expanding. Just recently, we deployed equipment to Ibadan and Bayelsa because our clients are starting operations there. We are looking at expanding to other West African airports and we think we should. You know Nigeria is big when you talk about a ground-handling company with presence in 18 airports. There are ground-handling companies abroad that operate from one airport; but we are successfully operating from 18 airports. It could have been 18 countries, you know. There are states in Nigeria that are bigger than some countries. So if we look at it, we could say we have presence in 18 nations. So if we have succeeded in doing that, we have the capacity to replicate same in other countries.
Q: What is your view about unauthorized agents otherwise referred to as touts at the cargo sector?
A: If you go into our systems, you will see what we have done with crowd control. Because from the gate, there are levels of control everywhere. One of the major reasons we are operating is the safety of goods especially the cargo products. So we are very conscious about that. Our cargoes are monitored from the plane to our warehouse and inside our warehouse. Since we started operating our warehouse, theft of cargo is unheard of.
Q: You hinted that ground-handling is under-priced. What should we expect from SAHCO in his regard?
A: Ground-handling in Nigeria is still under-priced. The tariff we are using in Nigeria for ground handing was last upgraded in 2009 which is even more under-priced compared to what we have. The cost of equipment we bought sometime in 2014, has tripled. Yet, we must provide excellent and quality services to our clients.
The cost of certifications has also gone high. The costs of maintenance, living and fueling have also gone up. Yet, we must provide excellent service. Airlines are coming in and they are not expecting anything less because it is Nigeria and they are not expecting anything less from a ground handling company.
Q: What’s your projection for SAHCO, the ground-handling industry in Nigeria and in Africa in 10 years to come?
A: At SAHCO we have promised to provide safe, excellent and speedy ground handling services by ensuring and maintaining standards. And because change comes from time to time, we will grow with the industry as new trends set in, and of course we will come up with innovation from time to time.
We have built a Bowser to enable us distribute fuel courtesy of the expertise of our maintenance and technical staff in pushing forward the aviation industry. Our clients and prospective clients can be rest assured that we are going to keep offering them the best of services in line with international best practices; ground-handling that is safe, fast, speedy and excellent.