Many miles yet to travel for Africa’s airports

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I’ve just returned from an enlightening and entertaining few days in Livingstone, Zambia, where the future of Africa’s airports – including their commercial activities – was the key theme of the ACI African Region Annual Assembly.

In many ways, our final minutes in Livingstone encapsulated the challenges ahead for this region as well as any of the conference sessions. Most of the delegates were leaving on the Johannesburg flight from Livingstone Airport (thereafter connecting to other cities in the continent or beyond), so many of us travelled together.

Once at the airport we scrambled for our bags to join a huge queue at one of several security points, before even reaching check-in. Then we were ushered into a cramped, poorly lit room – the Departures hall – with enough seats to cope for one flight’s worth of passengers, though there were at least two leaving around the same time. Then before departing we all had to undergo a repeat of the earlier full security search. There was no phone signal and certainly no wi-fi access.

What of commercial? There were two small curio shops selling much the same merchandise, and a third that was closed, plus a tiny bar with seats for four people in a corner. In another corner was a name we recognised well: Flemingo, which operates the duty free concession at Livingstone. The retailer doesn’t have much to work with here, operating in a boxed off, tiny space (pictured below). As you’d expect it’s got a pretty good array of malts and blended whiskies, a nice variety of white spirits and some South African wines. The tobacco offer was minimal – some of the big brands were sold out, we were told – and the counter service fragrances section was a single shelf.

All in all, not a terribly enticing offer for the predominantly well-heeled western passenger that frequents this region to visit the stunning Victoria Falls, Zambezi River and go on safari.

Of course, the description of the facilities above is not entirely fair: Zambia is a very poor country with few natural resources, and little money to spend on transport infrastructure. Securing private investment to help it raise standards and build new infrastructure has proved tough for the government, which is battling it out with the rest of the continent for funding from the World Bank or other international institutions.

The size of many of the region’s airports makes them difficult propositions from a commercial viewpoint too. Around 80% of African airports handle less than 1 million passengers. Two countries and six airports contribute 40% of traffic, while 80% of the traffic is handled by eight countries.

There are positives though. There’s Africa’s burgeoning GDP growth, with its fastest growing countries outstripping many developed markets; there’s the rise of the middle classes in places such as Angola and Nigeria, and people’s thirst for air travel.

But in many countries, the lack of infrastructure, limited space and difficulties (in commercial terms) around supply chain and customer service make the task ahead a huge one.

Given time, money and an injection of international expertise, Africa can become a much more significant player on our industry’s stage. But it will be a gradual process, and in many locations, a long haul.

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