A land of opportunities, constrained by challenges
Doing business in an emerging market can sometimes feel like driving a car without a seat belt — there is significant risk, and the road is littered with potential dangers. Uncertainty is something Larry Wenrich, vice president of government services at Pilot Freight Services, learned about the hard way when Pilot made its foray into the African market four years ago. He reveals that Pilot, which regularly handles shipments to Africa via a partnership with the U.S. military, encountered a lack of transparency among African businesses.
“For us, the hardest part of establishing ourselves in Africa was finding dependable companies to partner with,” Wenrich says. “I don’t want to say that it was trial and error, but that’s what it was.”
Wenrich says it’s not a problem anymore, as the U.S.-based forwarder has found two African companies to employ. But he acknowledges that fraud, or the potential for misrepresentation, is more prevalent in Africa than in many other regions. “We had some issues where shipments would be delayed, or we realized that somebody couldn’t get something out of Customs because they had no expertise, when they told us they did,” Wenrich says. “So we ran into that kind of stuff a lot.”
Dealing with African border disputes has also been an obstacle, he says, albeit a surmountable one. Instead of trucking goods from one contentious nation to another, Pilot Freight Services often ships cargo on alternative routes to avoid altercations. In fact, he says, Pilot may have to fly freight traveling only a few hundred miles thousands of miles out of the way to prevent violence or theft.
Some in the aviation sector think the problems in Africa are overblown, however. Yannick Erbs, CEO of Togo-based AfricaWest Cargo, says that although security breaches do exist in Africa, they aren’t exclusive to the continent. Erbs also maintains that African airports take strong measures to protect cargo. “Based on AfricaWest Cargo’s 15 years of operation, I can say that [security issues] are very marginal at most airports in Western and Central Africa due to the strict and efficient security measures that are put in place,” Erbs says. “In addition to this, it should be made known that there is an assuring presence of a large group of security personnel roving around the concerned areas, who are well-trained and reliable.”
Like Erbs, Air France-KLM Cargo’s Joost Ruempol says that his company’s operations in Africa haven’t been impaired by safety breaches. He also asserts that cargo theft — a problem commonly cited in South Africa and the western region of the continent — hasn’t been an issue for the airline. “Safety and theft in Africa are no bigger of a problem than in other parts of the world,” Ruempol says.
As evidence of AF-KLM’s confidence in Africa, the Dutch carrier recently ramped up its service to the continent. Earlier this year, AF-KLM launched routes to Luanda, Angola, and Lusaka, Zambia, with thrice-weekly service to Zimbabwe’s Harare International Airport recommencing in late October after a 13-year hiatus. The latter route — which Ruempol says will complement partner carrier Martinair’s B747 freighter service to Harare — will likely be inundated with mining equipment, he projects. After all, Zimbabwe is a land known for its rich natural resources.
Ruempol says mining equipment is also a key commodity on the carrier’s flights to Luanda. “Angola’s oil and gas industry is developing,” he says, “and therefore we mainly transport equipment related to this industry, complemented with personal effects.”
Flights to Zambia, however, are commonly filled with spare parts, in addition to oil and gas equipment. And without airfreight, Ruempol says, such goods might not reach the Southern African nation.
“There is no seafreight option to Zambia, and therefore the success of international trade depends a great deal on air cargo.” Still, he thinks the industry has only begun to realize the potential of the Zambian market. Take the nation’s flower export sector, for example. Ruempol says the launch of additional, nonstop flights from Europe could better address the market and its potential for growth.