By Martin Rivers
While impressive strides have been taken to rehabilitate and grow its economy, Somalia will be heavily dependent on imports for many years to come. That makes cargo a lifeline for the country; bringing in humanitarian aid, perishable food and reconstruction materials from the rest of the world.
Kenya’s Astral Aviation is by far the largest player in the Somali air cargo market, having launched scheduled once-weekly flights from Nairobi to Mogadishu in 2012 with a McDonnell-Douglas DC-9 freighter capable of carrying 15 tonnes. A second frequency was added last year, and chief executive Sanjeev Gadhia, who spoke to The Somalia Investor Magazine, expects a third flight to begin in November alongside a new scheduled link to Hargeisa.
“Currently there is more cargo flying from Nairobi to Mogadishu, rather than the other way round, as Somalia has more imports than exports,” he admits. “However, we are seeing perishable exports such as seafood and meat which are destined to the Middle East on the Mogadishu-Nairobi leg.”
Although commercial activity has lifted demand for Astral’s services, the airline primarily serves as a facilitator of humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in Somalia. That reflects its origins as a charter operator in the country during the devastating East Africa drought.
“Prior to 2012, we operated relief flights on a full-charter basis,” Gadhia recalls. “Astral Aviation participated in the largest emergency humanitarian response in Africa in 2011 by coming to the assistance of the drought victims in southern Somalia, transporting in excess of 350 tonnes of relief cargo … The commodities that were transported comprised Plumpy’Nut, high-energy biscuits, tarpaulins, medicines and mosquito nets, which were procured in Kenya and from overseas.”
In addition to its scheduled services to Mogadishu, the airline also operates charter flights to Hargeisa, Berbera and Bosaso on behalf of the regional authorities, the United Nations and various Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).
Turkish Airlines is the second largest air cargo name in Mogadishu. Since launching passenger flights from Istanbul in March 2012, the flag-carrier has complemented its presence with a minimum of two freighter services per year on the city pair – mostly government charters to assist the Turkish International Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA). It also deploys freighters to Nairobi and Entebbe, from where local partners pick up cargo shipments bound for Somalia.
“Currently there is more cargo flying from Nairobi to Mogadishu, rather than the other way round, as Somalia has more imports than exports. However, we are seeing perishable exports such as seafood and meat which are destined to the Middle East ,on the Mogadishu-Nairobi leg.” Sanjeev Gadhia, Chief Executive at Astral Aviation.
The airline’s once daily passenger service to Mogadishu is typically operated with an Airbus A321, which has space for two tonnes of cargo when passenger and baggage payloads are maximised. However, as Seref Kazanci, Turkish Cargo’s Senior Vice President, explains, the capacity is not always fully utilised.
“We are carrying belly cargo on our narrow-body flight to Mogadishu … mostly humanitarian medical supplies and small packages of diplomatic mail,” he notes. “But, due to security reasons, we are not allowed to carry cargo out of Mogadishu. We are eager to start soon once this is sorted out.”
Referring to the bombing of Daallo Airlines Flight 159 earlier this year – an attack that officials suspect was aimed at Turkish Airlines – Kazanci says the flag-carrier has made sweeping changes to its security processes. “The February incident was really a hit on commercial airlines who operate in Somalia and, as such, all carriers had to put in more measures to safeguard their clients and business,” he explains. “That includes Turkish Airlines.”
Astral’s Gadhia acknowledges that there were “apparent weaknesses” at the gateway, but insists: “They were immediately rectified, and subsequent audits indicated that the airport operates with an improved security culture”.
He adds that the more stringent protocols should encourage Kenya’s government to re-think its controversial policy of diverting flights from Mogadishu to Nairobi with a stopover in Wajir. “The screening of passengers and baggage twice is unnecessary and aggravating and leads to extra costs for airlines,” Gadhia complains, echoing widespread frustration about the time-consuming delays.
One airline no longer in the Somali market is Air Djibouti, the newly resurrected flag-carrier of Djibouti, which launched operations in August 2015 with a Fokker 27 freighter serving Hargeisa and Mogadishu. Despite being branded in Air Djibouti’s colours, that aircraft was owned and operated by Astral under a so-called wet-lease partnership.
Although the arrangement quickly unravelled due to maintenance problems, Air Djibouti is now back in the skies with a wet-leased Boeing 737-400 passenger jet deployed on flights to Addis Ababa. It expects to receive two BAe 146 passenger jets from South African partner Fair Aviation this year – the same 90-seater type deployed by local rival Daallo Airlines – and has earmarked both units for an imminent return to Somalia, pending extensive security audits.
“Mogadishu would be almost certainly our biggest market,” affirms Ian Patrick, Air Djibouti’s Commercial Director. “If we’re going to do Mogadishu [then] in a very short timeframe you have to have Hargeisa, Berbera and Bosaso, and link them all together.
“The aircraft would go Djibouti-Bosaso-Mogadishu-Djibouti. And then the next day it would fly straight into Mogadishu and come back via Bosaso. We’d have the same linking [to Djibouti] for Hargeisa and for Berbera. And link Berbera-Hargeisa-Bosaso as well. But we have to make sure that everything is secure in Mogadishu before we fly in.”
While Air Djibouti will initially return to Somalia with passenger jets, the airline is actively evaluating two types of freighters: 737Fs and BAe 146Fs. Patrick envisages cargo flowing into Mogadishu from Dubai and Jeddah through the Djibouti hub, but cautions that enhanced storage facilities are required at Djibouti Ambouli International Airport before the flag-carrier can again deploy freighters. A new cargo terminal is expected to open at the gateway around the end of the year.
Asked about the returns available to air cargo operators in Somalia, Patrick puts them in the “moderate range”. His downbeat assessment is echoed by Astral’s Gadhia, who says cargo yields are “declining due to the competition between passenger and cargo airlines”. While affordable rates are good news for shippers, operators will want to see stronger yields before adding capacity in the challenging market.
Controversially, there is one import that outperforms almost all others in Somali skies: khat, the herbal stimulant chewed widely across the region for its psychoactive effects. According to the BBC, an estimated $400,000 worth of khat is flown into Mogadishu on any given day.
Civil Aviation Minister Ali Ahmed Jangali threw the industry into turmoil in September, when he announced a total ban on all khat imports to the country. That provoked an outcry among Kenya’s struggling growers, who are already reeling from similar bans in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. However, the Somali decision was reversed within a week following top-level talks between the two governments.
The writer is a visiting Commercial Air Transport writer based in Edinburgh