West Africa Rising: Senegal hopes new $450 million airport will make it a world trade hub

Senegal's government wants its new airport to become a 21st-century global hub, but why don't African infrastructure projects link the region's cities to each other better?

By , Correspondent

West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

Let's book a flight.

Accra, Ghana to Lomé, Togo. Distance Traveled: 100 miles. Cost of Ticket: $727.

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Compare that to a flight from Accra to London. Distance Traveled: 3,165 miles over two seas, the world's largest desert, its second-smallest continent, a pair of formidable mountain ranges, and finally Big Ben before touching down on one of the most crowded and surely expensive runways to land on in the world. Cost of Ticket: $618.

Why is air travel between African cities so expensive? It's less a question than an outrageous fact of movement on this continent where every country boasts a national airline, a national beer, and a mildewy airport to serve them both.

This is a continent whose infrastructure runs away from itself; just consider the road from Accra to Lomé, a brutal, four-hour trail of tears that rumbles over potholes and splashes onto flooded ponds. By comparison, the autoroute from Ghana's capital to its port – and from there, Europe – is among the slickest routes in Africa.

So, too, will be the $315 million highway being paved between Senegal's capital, Dakar, and its new $450 million airport 40 miles outside of town. The Senegalese government wants its new airport to become an 21st-century global hub: a 30-gate sleek cut of concrete and glass upon whose runways Africa shall meet the world.

The problem, it seems, is that they don't want anybody else to land there except Senegal Airlines, the national carrier conceived by the president's son and part-owned by (this is odd) US-based pop music star, Akon.

At least that's the message Brussel Airlines officials say they got this month when Senegal ordered the Belgian carrier to cancel its flights between Dakar and Banjul, capital of neighboring Gambia.

The Belgian airliner wasn't even letting passengers fly between Dakar and Banjul – their planes were just stopping in Dakar on their way to Banjul to refuel and let Senegal-bound passengers disembark.

But Senegal's air transport ministry – whose spokesperson was not available to comment – saw that as competition for Senegal Airlines. So the ministry, which is led by the president's son, ordered them to stop.

Now, the carrier is renting a plane to make its Dakar flights, a daily expense to the tune of "several tens of thousands of dollars," the airline's spokesman Geert Cosciot told me, yesterday.

Passengers, of course, will foot the bill. Speaking to the local press last month, Senegal airlines chief executive – who didn't answer his cellphone when I called for comment – bragged that his airline won't bring down those quadruple-digit ticket prices a smidgen. It may help that Senegal's Air Transport Ministry reportedly denied Lomé-based Asky Airlines the right to tack Dakar onto the carrier's map of destinations.

"There is a potential for an inter-regional market that has yet to be fully developed," the World Bank wrote in a report last year.

Anybody whose ever tried to transport themselves or their belongings around this continent of seven-people taxis and mini-vans overloaded with sacks of yams – always yams – knows what a regular schedule of domestic, Africa-bound flights could mean for the continent's growing middle class.

But the problem is that Africans can't afford it – really, who can?

But there's hope.

Consider the flight from Accra to Nairobi, Kenya. Distance Traveled: 2,596 roadless miles of absolute hinterland you would never want to transverse by bus. Cost: $804

"The costly Balkanization of Africa airlines," writer former New York Times Africa correspondent Howard French, is coming to an end in East Africa.

Airport scenes on that side of the continent are starting to smack of East Asia, circa 1990, writes Mr. French.

"A strange sense of déjà vu hit me as I lugged my too-heavy carry-ons through Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta Airport," he wrote last month. "All of the hallmarks of that old Southeast Asia travel hub [Bangkok, Thailand] were in evidence: endless, doughty, glass-enclosed duty free shops flogging Timex watches and Remington shavers, miniature TVs and music players of all descriptions, along with such staples as international power adapters to choice-deprived consumers. It was old Bangkok without the airport massages, and at least at this hour, without the bustle."

The veteran hand on African affairs is writing a book on China's herculean adventure through the continent. The People's Republic is cleaning un-cleansable stables, paving the remotest of roads, and plopping down railways as if its 1899.

If America is looking for a Great Leap Forward-scale China-style infrastructural epic it can pursue with the continent, French says the US should look to the African skies – or to the un-mowed fields where new airports must be built, and engines serviced.

It makes sense. East Asia, in the throes of its own domestic air transportation boom is having to import pilots, planes, and parts from America. But French might find that even with the lowest of fares and sleekest of hubs, when Africa flies, it flies North-South.

"We want to go to Europe, to go shopping in Paris and taste the nightlife," Senegalese Economist Adama Gaye told me over expresso in a French-style diner in Dakar, today. "It's historical. It's in our DNA."

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