Zambia is betting on air transport like never before. With the economy growing healthily and visitor numbers on the rise, the government is injecting $1.2 billion into its airport network in a smart bid to leverage the country’s strategic geographical position and create major passenger and cargo hubs. Robinson Misitala, MD of Zambia Airports Corporation, guides us through the big changes and challenges that lie ahead
The second quarter of 2017 saw a 7.4 per cent increase in passenger movement and last year the number of passengers grew by 2.3 per cent to a total of around 1.6 million. What would you say accounts for this significant increase in traffic?
The economic performance of the country. We’ve seen copper prices and agriculture increasing. There are some new airlines doing well in terms of passenger movement. We’ve also seen some of the airlines changing the way they have been operating. The ones who used to come in once are now coming in twice, such as Kenya Airways. We’ve also seen South African Airways performing in a similar way – it contributes more than 30 per cent of our traffic, so much of the increase can be attributed to South African Airways.
An injection of $1.2 billion in aviation facilities has been announced. How do you think this new capital will improve the aviation industry and impact the overall development of the country?
Airport infrastructure is key to any country because it’s the place that visitors visit first. The injection of $1.2 billion is testament to the fact that the government has realised the need to improve infrastructure at the airports. $60 million has already been spent at Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula International Airport in Livingstone. Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, where we are seated, is going to be upgraded at a cost of $360 million. This will see a terminal building with capacity for four million passengers a year. It will also include other infrastructure, such as hotels – for the first time we are going to have an airport with two hotels – and a shopping mall. With this injection we also need to change our strategy and make Kenneth Kaunda an air transport hub. We are sitting between the Johannesburg and the Nairobi hubs, so our target market is aircraft from the Americas going to the East and Middle East.
Are there opportunities for British and European investors to be a part of this ambitious transport hub?
Yes. We have eight neighbouring countries, so we are already a natural hub. Investors can come either through a public-private partnership or through direct investment. We do not have direct flights between Lusaka and London as we used to. There are a lot of opportunities in terms of airline business and infrastructure development. We’re sitting on 3,000 hectares of land here at Kenneth Kaunda. Companies are welcome to come and put up first-class infrastructure in terms of hotels and even work together with us to develop other airport-related businesses. There are opportunities in ground handling, inflight catering, and even running lounges and other aviation-related facilities.
How are you looking to have a direct connection from Europe in Zambia again?
Without direct flights into Europe, it’s a challenge. Tourists don’t want to spend two or three days travelling just to come to Zambia – there are other destinations that have direct flights. Our strategy is to go straight to the airlines. We are targeting big airlines such as Qatar and Turkish Airlines. We’ve seen an increase in passenger movement so we believe that one day these airlines will decide to establish themselves in or partner with Zambia. The government is looking at strategic partners to come up with a flight carrier or national airline, so we support that move.
What would it mean for Zambia to have a national airline?
A national airline is key because for any airport to flourish, you need a domiciled carrier. If you look at our airports, there are no flights because these are foreign-based airlines. They’re on the ground for less than one hour and then they’re gone. As an airport you also get revenue from parking and there are no aircraft here parking. The well-developed airports worldwide rely on domiciled airlines. If you go to Heathrow, you find British Airways.
The new Copperbelt airport has already had an investment of $400 million or more. What stage is the project at, why has it been identified as necessary, and is there room for foreign businesses and investors to get involved?
There are a lot of mining activities in Copperbelt, in North-Western Province and also in Katanga province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The idea of investing more than $400 million is to make the Copperbelt international a cargo hub. Companies can come and invest in cold or dry cargo warehousing. They can also invest in other infrastructure related to mining.
As of September, the $360 million project to renovate Kenneth Kaunda International Airport was 64 per cent complete. How is construction going? What benefits will the renovation bring?
The work is due to be completed by October 2019. Apart from the terminal building, you’ve got the existing building with two million capacity, so we’re going to have a total capacity of six million passengers in Lusaka. We are also going to have air bridges for the first time, two hotels – a transit hotel and another hotel within the airport. If we are to be a hub, we need facilities for travellers who do not meet visa requirements so they can stay within the airport. We are also going to have a cargo terminal with a cold room and dry cargo areas, a presidential pavilion, inflight catering area, shopping mall, office complex and fire and rescue facility, which has already been completed. Then we also have a control tower and offices, which is more than 60 per cent complete. On top of that, we have extended the taxiway by a kilometre, which will bring efficiency – aircraft will be able to land and take off simultaneously. Why are we doing all this? We know that airlines are struggling. At the moment 90 per cent of our income is aviation-related – non-aviation only contributes 10 per cent. We want to change that to how it is in most airports where non-aviation-related income is at least 30 per cent. So now we have hotels, shopping malls and cargo terminals as ways of raising resources, as opposed to increasing airport-related fees, which airlines are struggling to pay.
You receive around 60,000 British tourists a year. What strategies do you have in place with the tourism organisations here in Zambia to attract visitors?
We are working with Zambia tourism agents so that we can intensify marketing. Apart from the Victoria Falls in Livingstone, there are other areas that we believe British tourists can enjoy. We need to have a collective approach in terms of appealing to the British audience.
The data shows that other African countries have been able to receive more investment attention than Zambia. But the Zambian economy seems better positioned than many of these states at the moment. To what extent is this a matter of the investment narrative that Zambia is projecting?
We have not been loud enough. We need to look at, first, stability. We are one of the countries within the region that has been stable from independence to date. Second, our economic performance has always been positive. We are even discovering more mineral resources, meaning the opportunities are there. We need to make as much noise as possible, and assure investors that they will be able to get returns in a short period.
What are the main challenges that aviation faces today in Zambia?
The major challenge is the lack of a domestic airline because if you look at our air fares, they are very high. Flying from here in Lusaka to Livingstone is almost the same as flying from here to Johannesburg. The problem is very few people are flying and that’s one reason for the high air fares. We don’t want to raise our fees because if we do that, we are making the cost of travel very high. That’s why we are looking at other opportunities, so that our airport fees remain the lowest in the region, which we are proud of.
How would you describe what is happening at the moment in the aviation industry in Zambia?
For the first time aviation has been given first slot in terms of prominence, support and resource mobilisation. We are living at the best time in history in terms of aviation in this country.
This is an important element for Zambia to reach its Vision 2030 goals. How confident are you it will achieve them?
We are very confident looking at our stability, the performance of the economy and also the pillars of the economy. One of these pillars is the diversification from minerals and copper, mainly to agriculture and tourism. We are key in tourism and also in agriculture because farmers want to export their produce to Europe and Asia and they need air transport. With what is happening in the aviation industry we have no doubt that Zambia will be able to achieve Vision 2030.
Are there any messages you would like to put out there?
The message, especially to the British audience, is for them to come and experience the tourism offer, the wildlife, we’ve got so many managed game reserves that they can come and enjoy. Just come and relax!
What would you say about the internal connectivity – it may not be the cheapest but it exists…
At the moment domestic travel accounts for only 20 per cent. Our wish is that it should be more than 50 per cent. Because if you look at most countries – South Africa, for example – domestic accounts for more than 80 per cent. In China it’s 99 per cent. We’re happy that we’ve now got a second domestic airline, Mahogany, which started flights just a month ago. We’ve also got Proflight, which has been around for all these years since the time that Zambia Airways, then the national airline, was still flying. We’ve also got a number of charter flight companies.
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