BACK IN MAY 2015, THE AFRICAN DEVELOPMENT BANK (ADB) published its 50th African Economic Outlook report, which urged greater investment in the continent’s rural communities. In May this year, in its 51st African Economic Outlook report, the bank called for greater investment in the continent’s urban communities.
While the two exhortations are not necessarily contradictory, let alone mutually exclusive, they do give weight to the impression that Africa’s leaders are only too aware of the challenges they face but are not sure where – and possibly even how – to start.
With its vast mineral resources, most of which are still untapped, and huge reserves of non-renewable fuels, along with an immense and rapidly-growing labour pool, the entire continent should be a hive of international commercial activity, abuzz with corporate travellers.
But with a handful of exceptions – South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya among them – most of the continent’s 54 nations are visited relatively infrequently by Western business travellers. Johannesburg may be teeming with road warriors, but Yaoundé? N’Djamena? Ouagadougou?
The prospects, however, are looking good. Although some national economies are still struggling, the ADB forecasts that the continent’s economy as a whole could grow by 3.7 per cent this year, and by 4.5 per cent in 2017 – a regional growth rate surpassed only by that of East Asia.
The biggest barrier to growth is income inequality. More than one-third (36.2 per cent) of the continent’s population of 1.1 billion subsists on less than US$1 per day. Such inequality is not only a breeding ground for crime and corruption but it also has an impact on the transport sector – why run an airline when so few can afford a ticket?
John Grant, senior analyst at aviation data giant OAG, says: “In most emergent markets, significant progress has been made in embracing new airline business models, and breaking through some of the more archaic regulations and operating environments that had previously existed.
“Unfortunately, while capacity has been growing in recent years in selected markets, Africa as a continent continues to struggle to fulfil its greater potential as legacy practices and regulatory processes continue to frustrate commercial opportunities.”
He adds: “Recent analysis we undertook at OAG highlights that many of the major capital cities in Africa remain unconnected, with only indirect routings possible, which reflects some of the historic colonial market structures and links. However, in a faster-moving world of trade and commerce those markets should be served and this highlights the frustrating nature of African aviation.”
Older Africa hands will recall the heyday of the likes of France’s Union de Transports Aériens (UTA), which linked Europe with up to 25 points in west and central Africa, and Côte d’Ivoire-based Air Afrique, which linked 22 francophone African destinations, and whose state shareholders included Benin and Burkina Faso, Senegal and Sierra Leone, among others.
Easyjet founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou’s ambition of reviving the pan-African concept, in the form of Fastjet, has made only limited progress to date.
As OAG’s Grant says: “There are some remarkable success stories in Africa – Ethiopian Airways, for instance, appears to have a larger share of the Africa-China market than Emirates.
“Sadly, those examples are the exception to the rule and current market conditions, carrier performance and external factors outside an airline’s direct control make trading very difficult for many.”
He concludes: “With higher-than-average population growth, increasing disposable incomes and growing commercial opportunities, the frustrations of previous attempts at grasping the opportunity have to be overcome in the next few years.”
IN NEED OF AN UPGRADE
Within Africa, rail travel isn’t much of an option either. The infrastructureafrica.org website, backed by the ADB, says: “Although an extensive rail system based in southern Africa reaches up from Durban as far as the Democratic Republic of Congo and East Africa, most of the subcontinent’s railways are disconnected lines reaching inland from ports and serving small markets by modern railway standards.
“Most networks outside South Africa still operate with their original facilities, with little upgrading. They are ill-suited to modern requirements.
“Many structures and some of the tracks are now more than 100 years old. Long sections of track on most rail systems need repair or replacement. In some systems, major sections are not in operation and require rehabilitation before operations can resume. Even where there is service, poor track conditions force speed restrictions.”
It gets worse. Given the lack or air and rail connectivity, road travel would seem to be the obvious alternative for the corporate traveller with places to go and people to see, but that turns out to perilous in the extreme.
According to recent data from the World Heath Organisation, the UK recorded 2.9 deaths as a result of road traffic accidents per 100,000 head of population in 2013. In Malawi, the figure was 35 deaths per 100,000 head of population, and the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Rwanda and Tanzania all recorded more than 30.
JOIN THE QUEUE
While getting around can range from difficult to dangerous, finding somewhere to stay is often an easier matter – international chains are queuing up to operate hotels across the continent.
The Rezidor Hotel Group (which at the time of going to press was subject to a takeover by Beijing-based HNA Tourism Group as part of the latter’s acquisition of Carlson Hotels) has long been a major player in Africa and has recently opened Radisson Blu hotels in Abidjan, Libreville, Lomé and Marrakech. Further Radisson Blu properties open this year in N’Djamena (Chad) and Algiers, in Abuja and Conakry (Guinea) in 2017, and in Cotonou (Benin) in 2018.
While Intercontinental Hotel Group’s expansion plans are currently centred on Asia, Starwood Hotels and Resorts’ Africa pipeline includes Sheratons in Annaba (Algeria) and Conakry later this year; Nouakchott (Mauritania), Dakar (Senegal), Juba (South Sudan) and Bamako (Mali) in 2017; and Kigali (Rwanda) in 2018.
Accorhotels’ signing last year of 50 new hotels in Angola took the former Portuguese colony into second place – behind Nigeria, but ahead of Egypt – in the league table of African nations with the largest hotel rooms pipeline.
According to the W Hospitality Group consultancy’s latest survey, the number of planned hotel rooms in Africa has soared to 64,000 in 365 hotels, up almost 30 per cent on last year.
The increase is largely down to strong pipeline growth in sub-Saharan Africa, which is 42.1 per cent higher than in 2015 and is significantly outstripping North Africa, which achieved only a modest 7.5 per cent pipeline increase so far this year.
All 50 of Accorhotels’ Angolan properties are already under construction – which prompts W Hospitality managing director Trevor Ward to sound a note of caution about the number of hotel deals that have been signed but have have yet to open – for a variety of reasons, but primarily because of a lack of finance. “Between 2006 and 2013, 104 deals with 21,377 rooms, more 30 per cent of the total, were signed and should now be open, or at least well under construction,” he says. “If all those involved – the investors, chains, consultants and lenders – can bring these deals to fruition, the pipeline of the future will result in the much-needed expansion of Africa’s hotel industry.”
On a brighter note, Ward continues: “The evidence from our survey is clear – investors remain confident about the future of the hospitality industry on the continent. Even when pummelled daily by low commodity prices, exchange rate problems, political challenges and poor infrastructure, Africa remains resilient.”
WARNINGS FOR THE UNWARY
From the travel management company (TMC) perspective, Sonja Hamman, director at South Africa-based Wings Travel Management’s global oil and gas division, has a catalogue of warnings for the unwary. “Operating in certain areas of Africa is not easy – if it was, everyone would be here themselves,” she says. “Many global TMCs rely on local agencies in Africa to supply services via a joint-venture or franchise affiliate.
“In our experience, there is very little alignment between the services offered by the global TMC and their partners in Africa. This often results in frustrating inconsistencies with processes, data capture, reporting and, most importantly, service levels.
“Bookings made with travel agents ‘in country’ are often not handed off to the company’s third party security vendors lik International SOS, resulting in a serious gap in traveller tracking and reporting. Additionally, there are multiple low-cost carriers operating within these markets that are booked via travel agents or company travel coordinators in country.
“Again, these bookings are being missed from any travel tracker reporting, thereby significantly impacting the company’s duty-of-care to their travellers.”
So far, so bad – but Hamman remains optimistic. “Oil and minerals have been a key component of the growth of the continent and, at present, the slump in consumption is having an effect. But the middle class will grow as new industries move into the continent – in some ways it is a chicken-and-egg situation. “Ghana is an area that is showing real promise and one where we are working with clients to explore opportunities. The most-likely spin-off benefits of an African middle class would be a larger choice, and improved quality, of hotels and restaurants, plus – hopefully – it would also result in a decrease in crime and an improvement in the standards of the general infrastructure.”
The last word goes to Sarah-Jayne Aldridge, a former Business Travel Awards judge with a wealth of experience of managing travel to and within Africa. “It is a grave mistake to look at Africa as one destination,” she says. “There are some intra-national similarities but, from a travel management perspective, the continent is as diverse as it is vast. The opportunities – and the travel management challenges – vary enormously from country to country.”
She points out that various countries in Europe have wide disparities, and are not viewed as a homogenous entity. “That said, there some common denominators that travel management professionals need to bear in mind,” she says. “Africa encompasses some of the poorest countries in the world, and that means that crime and corruption remain rife in many, but by no means all, countries.”
That poverty and a relatively small affluent middle class often means a lack of travel/transport infrastructure. “Generally speaking, the roads are awful, the rail network is all but non-existent, and aviation safety and security standards are, in many instances, questionable.”
But on the plus side, she says: “In my experience, customer service delivery is generally excellent – low wages mean that travel suppliers and inter-mediaries can afford to maintain labour- intensive workforces.”
Aldridge adds: “Inward investment, notably from China, is already having a significant positive economic effect in many parts of the continent. Africa is one to watch – with caution for now, but also with confidence for the future.”
The ‘Clean List’
BERLIN-BASED TRANSPARENCY INTERNATIONAL’S latest Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) shows that Botswana is reckoned to be the ‘cleanest’ African nation, ranked 28th in the table of 177 countries (the UK shares tenth place with Germany and Luxembourg).
The monitoring organisation has been publishing the annual CPI since 1995, ranking countries “by their perceived levels of corruption, as determined by expert assessments and opinion surveys”.
The organisation generally defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”.
Of the 177 countries included in the report, Somalia shares bottom place with North Korea, and 14 of the 25 “most corrupt” countries are in Africa.
After Somalia, African nations with the worst corruption records, in ascending order, are Sudan, South Sudan, Angola, Libya, Guinea Bissau, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Burundi, the Republic of the Congo, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and Uganda.