Astral Aviation Africa’s link to the world
Africa is vast and rich with natural resources. It has gold, diamonds, oil & gas, various minerals, water, arable land, forests and wildlife, among many others, spread over the continent’s54 nations. But few foreign investorshave ventured into business there due to concerns over security, lack of infrastructure, market volatility and so on.
But the Kenya-based Astral Aviation was undeterred. It was among thecompanies that dared to do business in Africa, pioneering in the aviation sector in 2000. It was the brainchild of the UK-educated Indian-descent entrepreneur, SanjeevGadhia, who saw the need for a cargo carrier to help transporthumanitarian efforts tothe continentand bring relief to those who badly needed it.
His business venture paid off, providing not just humanitarian aid, but also enabling the continent to trade globally via Astral Aviation’s expanding services which now include drone transportation across Africa.
Frontline during the pandemic
African countries were among the areas heavily affected during the pandemic due to limited resources and access to mobility. Many of its airports were closed for a long time and aviation restrictions were imposed in accordance with global policy at that time.
But Astral Aviation rose to the challenge by serving as many as 40 countries in Africa, benefitting numerous communities with basic things needed to prevent the spread of the virus and treat those already infected. When COVID-19 vaccines were rolled out, the airline was also among the first in the region to serve its people.
“Astral Aviation did well at the peak of the Covid pandemic, with a renewed focus in ensuring the un-interruption of our scheduled services for perishables, in addition to our existing scheduled services from the Nairobi Hub to the Intra-African network,” said Gadhia.
“Operating during the pandemic had its challenges due to the closure of many airports in Africa along with crew restrictions on some of our routes.We were honored to be of service to the continent by moving hundreds of flights to and within Africa carrying PPE’s, hospital equipment and oxygen concentrators including an entire plant, which was followed by vaccines and syringes to over 40 of the 54 countries in Africa,” he added.
The Astral Aviation founder and CEO recalled one of his most memorable memories during the pandemic was when the airline successfully transported close to 900,000 doses of COVID-19 Covishield vaccines from Johannesburg, South Africa to more than 16 countries across Africa in less than 48 hours.
“We have had many memorable experiences during the pandemic, but one that brings joy was to uplift under 900,000 doses of Covid-19 Covishield Vaccines from Johannesburg to over 16 countries in Africa on a CRJ200P2F which was achieved in less than 48 hours,” he shared.
The perishables sector, which include cut flowers and vegetables, heavily struggled during the period due to restrictions to enter its primary market, Europe. Passenger flights were also restricted at that time.
“The impact of the pandemic on the aviation sector in Africa was felt greatly by the perishables sector, which had restricted capacity in 2020 and 2021 arising out of a limited resumption of passenger flights to and from Europe.The inbound sector from China to Africa has been affected due to lack of direct or in-direct capacity hence the rates are at historical highs, which has affected e-commerce and mobile phones shipments bound for Africa,” Gadhia explained.
Adding, “African airlines made significant attempts to improve capacity by converting passenger aircrafts into passenger freighters which made a difference in key routes into Europe and Middle East.”
2022 and beyond
Gadhia described 2022 as a “great year for Astral” as the airline took delivery of two new B757 freighters, increasing its fleet capacity.
“We took delivery of our two B757F which were leased from Aquila Air Capital. The Intra-African market has been relatively stable while our cargo flights to and via Dubai experienced growth in perishables which were performed on the B767-200F,” he said.
“The last quarter of 2022 was difficult due to a reduction in the volumes into Africa due to the effect of the post-Covid and global recession in addition to the reduction of output from China to Africa, which was the fastest growing trade lane in the world for air-cargo,” he added.
Over the last three months, Astral Aviation had successfully forged new partnerships which could boost its business outcome this year. This includes code-share agreement with Kenya Airways (on UAE-Kenya route); Appointment of GSA in Europe, UK and USA with Air Logistics Group; MoU with Etihad Cargo expand their existing partnership and enhance cooperation between Abu Dhabi and Nairobi, and;agreement with Abu Dhabi Airports Company for direct scheduled flights from Nairobi to Abu Dhabi.
Africa, heart of Astral
With Astral’s heart focused on Africa, Gadhia lamented the continent wasn’t a priority during the pandemic despite its vast proportion of in terms of global land area and population. Add to the continent’s woes are problems with corruption and bureaucracy.
“Sadly, Africa’s problems are “left for the end” as this has been experienced during the pandemic when Africa received PPE’s and Covid-19 vaccines later than the rest of the world. On a positive note, this enables the continent to manage its own problems using a combination of innovation and resilience which enables it to deal with the crisis, with the lowest levels of infections and deaths, and the fastest recovery.
“Indeed, Africa is blessed with all the world’s agricultural and mineral resources, but the mis-management of these resources has resulted in complex problems, which has resulted in it being dependent on the West and East for its survival,” said Gadhia.
But recent global events highlighting Africa’s importance to geopolitics may change its fortune in the future.
“This is however changing due to a number of initiatives which includes the African Continental Free Trade Area which will result in deeper economic integration and will attract investment, boost trade, provide better jobs, reduce poverty, and increase shared prosperity in Africa,” said Gadhia.
He said the company will forever cherish Africa for it was where it all began, saying, “Africa will always be the heart for Astral Aviation as it credits the continent for its birth and significant growth. The Nairobi Hub which has been operational for 23 years will continue to expand with new destinations, while the new Johannesburg Hub will go live in April 2023 with a number of new scheduled routes within Southern Africa, while the new Lome Hub will go live by mid-2023 with a number of new scheduled routes within Western Africa.”
“Due to the size of the continent, it’s prudent to have a Pan African network which will enable Astral to offer scheduled freighter services to over 30 destinations in Africa,” he added.
Other important markets
Gadhia said the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates, remains an important strategic part of Astral Aviation’s operations. Saudi Arabia, which is reforming its economic system, is also emerging as an important market for the airline.
“The Middle East continues to be of strategic importance to Astral Aviation, as it will expand its UAE network with flights to and from DWC and Abu Dhabi, with perishables cargoes from Africa to the UAE, and with return cargo comprising of general cargo, trader traffic and e-commerce shipments,” he said.
“Astral has plans to expand its flights into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with scheduled flights for perishables into the Kingdom which it expects to commence in Q2/2023.”
In North America, Astral will continue to rely on itsinterline partners to move cargoes from the US into Liege in Belgium for onward connectivity to Africa, said Gadhia.
In Europe, the airline willcontinue to operate scheduled flights to Africa from its Liege Hub in Belgium which has been in operations for over 10 years.
Below is the rest of our e-mail interview with Astral Aviation’s Founder and CEO on a number of other issues.
- What do you think are the biggest challenges this year for the global air cargo industry and how is the company dealing with it?
The biggest challenge facing the global air-cargo industry is a combination of high fuel prices, drop in volumes and yields, in addition to weakened output from China, however, we remain optimistic of recovery by mid-2023.
Astral has slowed down its fleet expansion in 2023/4 by differing some of its deliveries while optimizing its current fleet and resources, in addition to keeping control on its overheads.
Q:Problems related to climate change has gone from bad to worse all over the planet in recent years. How is Astral Aviation helping to tackle this issue?
Astral Aviation was the first airline in Africa to join the TIACA BlueSky program which was launched in 2022 and is a tool that the entire air cargo industry can use to track their sustainability progress, benchmark against peers and accelerate the industry transformation.
The first phase of the program comprises an evidence-based desktop verification process in which participants can assess their progress against eight critical sustainability criteria, including decarbonization, waste elimination, biodiversity protection, support for local economies and communities, impact on society improvement, efficiency and profitability, employee engagement, retention and development, and partnership building.
Upon completion of the tailored assessment process, Astral will receive a personalized dashboard which displays the carrier’s performance against the criteria. Later phases of the program will include the option for a full onsite audit with an in-depth report that highlights areas for improvement.
Q:Your subsidiary Astral Aerial has taken on a very special role in transporting vital goods through drones throughout the continent. Please tell us more about the company and some of its biggest accomplishments so far.
Astral Aerial, under the leadership of my eldest son, Kush, has been in the forefront of drone-technology in Kenya which is being scaled to the neighboring region.
While the initial focus was to utilize drones for last mile delivery, which is a project which has been delayed due to regulatory factors, Astral Aerial is a market leader in commercial solutions in Agriculture and Aerial Mapping to a number of clients
It has entered into various partnerships recently with Skyports, Swoop.aero, Reliable Robotics and will collaborate with global technology companies in Africa
- What’s your hope for Africa given the current global bleak outlook?
Africa has been through many ups and downs, and will maintain stability despite the current recession caused by the crisis in Ukraine and the slowdown in China.
African companies have been quick to adapt to the China syndrome by producing locally and will continue to be the fastest growing region in the world and will attract enormous investments.
The African Continental, established in 2018, will create the world’s largest free trade area, bringing transformative change and tremendous opportunity to African economies and business environments. Its adoption and implementation will accelerate intra-African trade and develop regional and localvalue chains, creating new business dynamics that offer investors access to a population of 1.7 billion people.
Four sectors—the automotive industry, agriculture and agro-processing, pharmaceuticals, and transportation and logistics—are expected to accelerate in production and trade volumes under the AfCFTA (The African Continental Free Trade Area).
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Etihad Cargo signs MoU with Astral Aviation to expand African network
- As part of Astral Aviation’s expanding partnership with Abu Dhabi, the airline will operate a number of flights between Abu Dhabi and Nairobi
- Etihad Cargo and Astral Aviation will share up to 50 percent of all available capacity on additional flights between Nairobi and Abu Dhabi which begins on 01 April 2023
- The agreement demonstrates Etihad Cargo’s commitment to partnerships that expand the carrier’s global network and will increase the cargo capacity available to its customers in the African market