A key part of my work on the field involves meetings with a variety of people from consumers and influencers to press professionals and entrepreneurs. There are times when these meetings painfully come to life as, at the agreed date and time, I am reduced to wait the other person, call them to find out whether they are on their way, wait, call, wait, call. One lesson among many others is that time is conceived, named, interpreted differently across cultures and environments in Africa. One time I happened to witness a curious scene in Congo, in a plane ready to take off for a 45-minute trip. As the aircraft was slowly taxiing-out, prompting the flight attendant to repeat the no-use-of-electronics-during-take-off instruction, the passenger next to me makes a phone call: “Hi…yes…I am coming…I am right there…in a few minutes…actually I am just right there, so wait for me“!
Another lesson learnt from crisscrossing the Continent is that lengthy waits or standbies are a common feature of travels. So I learnt how to make the best use of them. They are no longer dead time, but rather opportunities for doing many things.
The most recent wait-call experience sees me in Westlands, the shopping epicentre of Nairobi. As if endlessly waiting would become more bearable, I positioned myself at the precise place where matatu’s finish their journey, spotting them as they enter the street, following them as they approach, then examining each traveller getting off, hoping for good news. The matatus are private-held minibuses that are the most used public transportation in Kenya.
At that big bus stop, waiting turned into a true spectacle: the matatu’s are flamboyantly decorated, they feature portraits of Jesus, Malcolm X, Bob Marley, Khadafi, etc. They have powerful sound systems that play loud ragga/dancehall, Congolese rumba, hip hop/R&B. They bear popular slogans and sayings and extracts of the Bible and the Koran. They have grandiose or evocative names such as Amazing Grace, God’s Favour, Alvin, Young Rich And Reckless. In addition to the driver, a matatu is staffed by a conductor. I had the chance to come across various types of conductors, from extravagant showmen to resourceful gentlemen.
This spectacle led me to use matatu’s for a couple of trips around Nairobi: it is quite an adventure!
Here’s the beginning of a guide to navigate the matatu network:
- Matatu’s are the most budget-friendly way to get around. For instance, a 20-minute trip from Westlands to the Central Business District (CBD) costs 20-30 Kenyan Shillings (KES). They go from one hub to another where dozens of matatus line up to shuttle off people to all parts of the city and beyond.They operate on routes – which are known by their numbers – and stop wherever people are on the road or wherever they want to get off.
- Knowing which matatu goes where, what route it is likely to take and how much it will charge may not be easy task for the inexperienced. You have to rely on reliable sources, ask questions again and again, and compare.
- Matatu drivers are rough riders. They know no rules but theirs. So be prepared for a wild journey spiced up with big noise coming from both the sound system and the conductor, contrasting with the stoicism, sympathy and helpfulness of commuters.
- Matatu’s offer a true Nairobi experience – one very few outsiders see, but which opens the doors to some of the intricacies of the real urban life in Kenya.
Until recently, as the relationship between Africa and China kept on growing both in depth and scope, air travel and hospitality remained relatively immune to the transformations seen, say, in agriculture, infrastructure, retail, and other sectors that are priority destinations of China’s investment. There were only a limited number of Chinese routes operated by African carriers and virtually no African route serviced by Chinese carriers. Almost everywhere across Africa, China built lots of dams, bridges, roads, a few airports, but no hotels.
Enter Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s most profitable airline according to the global aviation industry association IATA. Data from OAG, an air travel intelligence company, show that of all the few African carriers catering to the Chinese market, it is Ethiopian who captures the lion’s share in the continued growth of the number of Chinese travellers to Africa. In terms of annual capacity, it went from 100,000 in 2007 to more than 350,000 in 2015.
A key enabler of Ethiopian’s leadership is the ideal geography of its hub, Addis Ababa International airport (ADD). In just a decade, ADD has seen an acceleration of the growth of the passenger- and cargo traffic and has become the epicentre for Chinese travellers in Africa.
It is anticipated that ADD will further grow as the leading gateway to Africa for at least two other reasons. One, Air China, a leading carrier in China, is finalizing its entry or redeployment in Africa. For this development to be commercially sound in a market deemed as fragmented, it has showed an inclination for using ADD as a hub.
Two, as part of China becoming the world’s fourth largest source of outbound travel by 2020 (with 100 million outbound travellers, according to the World Tourism Organization’s projection), the number of Africa-bound Chinese tourists will increase. Again, it is anticipated that they will see ADD as a platform leading to a wide array of African destinations.
Mr Feng, who originates from Jinhua, in the Zhejiang province, eastern China, and runs a small company in the agri-business in Yaoundé Cameroon, travels to China a dozen of times per year, going through ADD on each trip: “There are definitely more and more Chinese people coming. Years ago, they used to come from just a few places [in China], now all China meets here. Then from here Chinese people spread across Africa (…) It used to be only seasonal construction workers. Now I see all type of people, families, women alone, well-to-do people. Sometimes we talk, I get ideas about destinations in Africa. So my fiancée came to visit”. Him and his fiancée – who still resides in China – have visited various places across Africa over the last eight years. He says the fact that Ethiopian Airlines hired a full Chinese cabin crew was a game changer. “My fiancée was overwhelmed! More and more Chinese newcomers in Africa means more Chinese needs, more Chinese changes“.
But Chinese travellers landing in Addis Ababa International come face to face with a huge problem in the form of extremely lengthy layovers, numerous delays, cancellations and mismanagement in a string of areas. As a result many passengers find themselves stuck, stranded with very few options to kill time. The scenes of Chinese fliers sleeping on the floor, in corridors and concourses, and virtually anywhere they possibly can has become familiar.
This situation clearly points to the lack of hotels at ADD. Of the four major airports receiving Chinese passengers (Johannesburg, Cairo, Nairobi, Addis Ababa), ADD comes out as the least equipped in hotels, both in terms of number and calibre. Currently stranded passengers must resort to a handful of international four/five star hotel chains and a sizeable offering of motel-like, average quality hotels. In absence of a commuter train, guests must still rely on taxis and buses to get to a hotel.
Re-enter Ethiopian Airlines: the company is building a 40,000 sqm, 4-four star hotel on the site of ADD. The contractor is AVIC, a Chinese company, the financial backer is Eximbank of China. Both are stated-owned companies acting as vehicles for investment and foreign trade in Ethiopia, Algeria, Tanzania and other parts of the continent. The Ethiopian Airlines hotel will be the closest hotel to ADD, reachable within minutes via a connector.
Mrs Bao, says her time at ADD became lengthier over the years as her business trips became more frequent between Dar-Es-Salam, Tanzania – where she runs a prosperous furniture business – and various cities in China. “Sometimes I have layovers of five, seven hours, other times it’s ten, twelve, even fifteen hours. I stay at the airport. I am always very wary of leaving because visas, transfers, luggage and other issues cause such a waste of time (…) I cannot wait for new things to do at the airport and new hotels where I could just walk in and out”.
In 2014 she had siblings and relatives move to Tanzania to help her with the business. “I see more and more Chinese people coming to Africa” she says, “they are coming with their habits, they will want many things where they will be spending time and money. Because of that, there will be great changes in Africa.”
A sizeable number of medium- and large scale airports with a coastal or central geography in Africa claim to be the “gateway” to the Continent. In reality, very few can match the magnetism of Addis Ababa International Airport (ADD) or Cairo International Airport (CAI). They are truly the places where Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia converge in a frenetic fashion, with huge passenger numbers. To many aviation industry observers and insiders, these airports’ inexorable transformation comes out sometimes as a surprise.
In recent years, at several African airports, the passenger traffic not only grew at a faster rate but also shifted to a certain degree of sophistication. The massive Chinese contingent no longer comprises solely of male construction workers. Its ranks now also count investors, government officials, mid- and senior level professionals in consumer goods, retail, infrastructure, transport, energy and mining sectors. Couples are also coming.
Similarly African travellers are shifting to a higher calibre: they are middle-class, young entrepreneurs, millennials, women – many travelling solo; all en route to or back from a wide range of shopping-, business-, higher education destinations. Since 2004, off all the passenger segments, the intra-African has generated the healthiest growth.
New categories including cosmopolitan travellers and “modern explorers” show strong potentials with numbers coming just short of equalling those of the traditional clientele (backpackers, tourists, NGO workers).
More Customers, New Needs
With the growing influx of African travellers and other new passenger types, what are the consumer needs that ADD and CAI should meet if they are to live up to their status as leading gateways to Africa?
To find out, we met a diverse panel of travellers at ADD and asked lots of questions about how they rate this airport, the areas critical for their airport experience, among other topics.
A majority perceive that ADD perfectly reflects Ethiopia’s identity as a formidable global crossroads. They therefore want to see something that tells Ethiopia’s story or showcases Ethiopia’s uniqueness, a landmark like the Origami Museum at Tokyo Narita airport or the Faces Of Ireland exhibition at Dublin Airport.
They want to feel connected with the local culture and enjoy locally made food, drinks, events and art.
Many businesspeople shortlist quick food service, charging stations, global calling, good customer service and choice in their retail experience.
With plenty of time to kill at the airport due to lengthy layovers, the millennials we met, had a radical demand: no boredom. Their wishlists include laid-back lounges, shared spaces, free wi-fi everywhere and non-prohibitive credit card rates in shops.
Overall African airport customers want choice, quality, value, excitement and good quality service.
As I am writing this ADD does not meet these needs yet and still endures a mixed reputation. Nevertheless, it has big plans to become a continental leader as a large-scale terminal expansion project is under way. According to the development plan, in three to five years, the new terminal will offer new boarding gates and bridges, malls, lounges, recreation areas, offices and parking spaces.
With an annual capacity expected to increase from 7 to 22 million passengers, traveller spending will dramatically go up.
But users of today’s airports are no longer “travellers” or “passengers”. To most, an airport is less about sitting, waiting, travelling. Personally I have lost count of the number of new friends I made, new things I learned, unique experiences I lived and simply great shopping I did, at an airport. Or was it at an art gallery, a restaurant, a live music show, a flagship store that happened to be located in an airport.
Consumers, new “travellers”, cosmopolitan travellers in Africa, aspire to see the terminal time, not as a dead time, but rather a time for connections, discovery, excitement, memorable stories to take home, great eating and shopping.
They expect to see a sense of place and an invitation to engage in a serious relationship with all the makers of the airport experience, from the airlines, airport operator to the retailers and brands.