By Ali Tounsi
Ali Tounsi, Secretary General, ACI-Africa
Before looking at the current challenges of the air cargo sector in Africa posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to examine how this sector has been performing before the crisis.
It is worth noting that African air cargo volume is mainly driven by international trade lanes, especially to and from Europe, China and the United States respectively. On the other hand, domestic air cargo markets within African countries are still relatively thin.
After benefiting from the recovery in major economies and an uptick in commodity prices in 2017 and 2018, air cargo volume in Africa almost flattened in 2019, recording an anemic 0.2% growth year-over-year. Because export-dependent economies rely on international trade lanes and exposure to international markets, African air cargo volume growth was dampened by weak growth in global trade and by trade tensions and looming tariffs.
There is big optimism however for the air cargo industry in Africa. Indeed, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), signed in 2019, established the largest free-trade bloc in the world, that would surely stimulate intra-African trade. The AfCFTA could potentially mitigate Africa’s reliance on export markets outside the continent and further strengthen air cargo trade within the region. The implementation of AfCFTA and its trade-facilitation measures, aimed at minimizing red tape and simplifying customs procedures, present a major opportunity for African countries to bring 30 million people out of extreme poverty, raise the incomes of 68 million others and increase Africa’s exports by USD 560 billion, mostly exports from the manufacturing sector [World Bank, The African Continental Free Trade Area, July 2020. Assessed from https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/trade/publication/the-african-continental-free-trade-area].
To date, air cargo is still highly concentrated in a handful of African airports. Five African countries (Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa) account for more than two-thirds (67.3%) of the continent’s total cargo volume. All five countries handled over 250,000 metric tons of cargo in 2019. With year-over-year growth of 11.6%, adding 37,500 tons of freight, Cairo was Africa’s busiest airport for air cargo in 2019, dethroning Johannesburg. Nairobi, Kenya’s busiest hub, remained the second-busiest airport on the continent, experiencing robust 4.6% growth in 2019 following an impressive 25.2% volume gain in 2018. Johannesburg fell to third place in 2019 following a significant 18.3% drop in air cargo volume compared to 2018. These three airports alone represent over 42.4% of total African air cargo volume. Addis Ababa continued to grow in 2019, recording a 5.6% increase, and had by far the strongest annual growth rate in the 2000-2019 period, averaging a 14.0% increase per annum.
The COVID-19 pandemic obviously impacted the Top 10 African air cargo markets but in different ways. Cairo and Nairobi each saw a 5.0% decline in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. Already badly hit in 2019, Johannesburg continued to suffer and posted a further 33.4% decline in the first half of 2020. Addis Ababa, Lagos and Casablanca also recorded significant losses because of the pandemic, seeing respective decreases of 19.4%, 24.4% and 38.0%.
The impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on African air cargo traffic first became evident in March 2020 and losses in April were even higher, almost halving African air freight volume compared with the same month in 2019. However, a positive trend was seen in May and June, with volumes returning to nearly 75% of those in 2019. Two of Africa’s major country markets, Egypt and Kenya, were not severely impacted by the outbreak. Kenya even posted a higher growth rate in June 2020 than in June 2019.
However, South Africa had a different experience. While the second quarter of 2019 offered positive cargo growth signs for South Africa, the pandemic had a devastating effect on the country, erasing nearly three-quarters of its air cargo traffic in April and providing only limited relief in May and June.
The latest implication of the COVID-19 pandemic concerns the global distribution of the vaccines, which is likely to be one of the biggest logistical challenges ever faced by the transportation and logistics industry. Along with a multitude of stakeholders involved in the global distribution chain, the aviation industry has a key role in facilitating the rapid and safe delivery of large volumes of doses of these vaccines including the syringes and other medical equipment needed for the vaccination campaigns.
In this regard, airports, including those in Africa, are bound to play a central role as gateways for the incoming and outgoing shipments of vaccines and equipment. Many airports are already involved in the global effort and planning process underway and have developed, or are currently developing, local operating concepts to address any potential challenges. Anticipating the possible impacts of this distribution process and having a coordinated operations plan will ensure the overall success of the vaccination campaigns which are likely to span over months.
The vast majority of vaccines will be distributed by air cargo in Africa. It is therefore important that airport cargo facilities in all African countries are adequately prepared and equipped to store and manage large volumes of pharmaceutical products, including in maintaining the cold chain at all times. Indeed, as some of the vaccines have to be stored at temperatures as low as -70oC at all times, it will be essential to maintain the ultra-cold chain throughout the transportation processes.
The use of large volumes of dry ice will be needed to sustain these low temperatures. It is therefore important that all African airports, affected by vaccine distribution operations will change their standard operating procedures, conduct a safety risk assessment of the overall changes and impacts so as to identify hazards and implement mitigation measures. In addition to safety considerations in handling the high volume of vaccines, it is also vital that the security aspects are not neglected given the sensitive nature of the vaccines, the high level of demand for obtaining them and the initial short supply. In collaboration and coordination with law enforcement agencies in each African country, consideration should be given to ensuring the security of these sensitive air cargo operations, including the increased protection of these goods and/or the facilities that will house them.
Throughout this crippling pandemic, the air cargo sector in Africa is bound to navigate through a lot of turbulence. The sustainable recovery of the air transport industry is still uncertain at this point in time. However, what is certain is that African airports will be called upon to play an instrumental role in the distribution of the vaccines to immunise its population against the COVID-19 for the months to come. It is also hoped that the creation of the vast AfCFTA regional market will confidently offer some positivity in the future when a business as usual scenario is resumed, thus providing a major opportunity for African countries to diversify their exports, accelerate growth and attract foreign direct investment.