From Sudan to Senegal, Africa's head-turning new airports...with a helping hand from Chinese friends

Togo takes the biscuit, with plans for a $150 billion airport. You get an idea who the future game changers are likely to be.

EVEN though Africa accounts for about 15% of the world’s human population, its air traffic handles only 2.85% of air passengers. It is also home to only two airports which feature in the top 150 worldwide airports for highest annual passengers handled: Johannesburg’s OR Tambo and Cairo International, at two opposite sides of the continent leaving a lot of empty space. 

By any means, there is plenty of room for new developments, not merely for the expansion of old ones. Indeed, when looking closely at Africa’s air traffic future, there appears to be several new airport projects and a few new routes gaining strategic significance.

We reported on the competition among African and foreign airlines (READ: Battle of the Skies; it’s dog-eat-dog out there, but some African airlines have raised their game), and how the continent’s existing airports stack up against each other today in terms of passenger traffic  (READ: Which are the Big Kahunas of Africa’s airports? Here’s why they are winners, and their plans to remain tops). Here we look at who is likely to win the airport game of the FUTURE:

Asian fever for infrastructure

Khartoum, Sudan, is one place where a new airport has been planned after a $700 million contract was signed in 2013.  The project will be funded by a loan from China with two main contributors being Export-Import Bank of China (EIBC) and China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) – major players in overseas investments.

The Sudanese government will have to repay the loan over a period of 15 years, but Ali Mahmoud Abd al-Rasool, the country’s finance minister, stresses that the airport will have a strong positive impact on Sudan’s foreign trade – a boost desperately needed by the country’s stagnating economy. China waited with the loan until the ink was dry on Sudan’s agreement with South Sudan about oil exports through its port, a move that put all stakeholders in a winning position. 

Sudan isn’t the only country benefitting from China’s urge for infrastructure construction. A few months ago Beijing released a note stating that Lome, the capital of Togo, would receive a new airport from the China Airport Construction Group Cooperation (CACGC), an airport expert giant, by 2025.

At a total cost of $150 billion the magnitude of the project is staggering

CACGC have a traceable record of 200 completed airports, a number of which have been built in Africa – Comoros, Angola and Tanzania, to name a few. The government of Togo can therefore sleep tight knowing that two hundred and first airport shouldn’t pose problems to the CACGC veterans.

Much like Sudan and Togo, Djibouti is also expecting a Chinese-made airport. The president of Djibouti, Ismail Omar Guelleh, announced in January that the $599 million Ali-Sabieh International airport project will be completed by 2018. It is being constructed to accommodate 1.5 million passengers annually and will service 100,000 tons of cargo.

The China Civil Engineering Construction Cooperation (CCECC) is commissioned to build the airport in Djibouti as well as another small one near the Seven Brothers islands. An important development given Djibouti’s current airport capacity of only 250,000 people.

One might find it easy to correlate Chinese interests in Sudan with oil and Djibouti with its strategically located port. But what’s in Togo? Reading farming publications in China one comes across a recurring fact, “about 67% cropland in China lacks sufficient phosphorus”.

Togo’s economy relies on phosphate industry. It is home to about 60 million tons of this natural resource, according to specialists, and aims to produce 3 million metric tons per year in the near future. However, China also produces phosphate although given their propensity for its usage on the vast farmlands it is probably wise to think ahead and establish potential future extraction points.

China’s “safeguarding” foreign policy of no aggression or expansion, sometimes passive and sometimes offensive in nature, may also pose as another reason for its involvement in Togo. Especially considering that the neighboring Burkina Faso’s relation with the government of China has always been rocky given its strong sympathy for Taiwan. China might just want to tap into the one of the few remaining African countries which cannot be called its stronghold.

Following the tourism demands

Senegal is set to build a new airport too. Dakar’s main Leopold Sedar Senghor International Airport is set to be dwarfed by the new Blaise Diagne International Airport - named after the first black African elected to the French Chamber of Deputies and former mayor of Dakar. Unlike Sudan, Senegal’s main concern is boosting tourism not trade. The old airport, built by the French almost 100 years ago, is insufficient for a city like Dakar, which sees a lot of potential from international visitors.

With no major airports in the near vicinity, Senegal is in a position to start a race for regional air traffic domination. The new building is an ideal beginning. Whether such aspiration is on the government’s mind is unclear, but Africa’s market share of global tourism has risen from 3% in the 1980s to 5% in 2010 and today stands at 6% with a plan to attain double-digit figure by 2020, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

As Osman Ndiaye, UNWTO’s regional director for Africa underlines: “Open skies and open visas are some of the issues that need tackling for the growth of the African tourism market”. 

Not only new airports, however, are starting up on the continent. New ideas for routes and air traffic handling are signalling further sky industry expansion. Somaliland for example, tired of association with Somalia, has been putting a lot attention on its Hargeisa airport, which has recently undergone uplifting to serve a number of Ethiopian Airlines carriers.

“Airports are the gateways to the country” declared Somaliland’s civil aviation minister, Mohamud Hashi Abdi. Indeed. Hargaisa International Airport’s development might help to break away the bad opinion of the Horn of Africa’s nation and finally attract some tourists as well as more investment.

There are other planned airports, like in the Rwandan capital Kigali, but there is no information yet on the contracting.

New ideas, new routes

Private airport developments are also becoming more popular. The likes of Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport, operated by Primkop Airport Management Ltd., is a small, stylish, queue-free terminal servicing South Africa’s main national park.

The increasing number of savvy African travellers, as well as an extensive diaspora and expat base of explorers, voyagers and holiday-goers, may favour the quality of private airports – organised, with great quality of passenger and baggage handling and demand-oriented services.

In the name of tourism, remittance and history, Cape Verde opened a flight connection between T.F. Green Airport in Rhode Island, New England and its capital city of Praia on the island of Santiago. This is T.F. Green’s first year-round international service. The Cape Verdean community has a strong presence in New England, hence this development. Not many countries in Africa have direct flights to USA, making Cape Verde’s feat particularly special. 

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