‘Equator Cluster’ Airports Power East African Aspirations

 - July 29, 2013, 12:55 PM
Built in the 1970s, Entebbe International Airport serves as a major gateway to East Africa, but it badly needs investment to meet 21st-century standards. (Photo: Peter Shaw-Smith)

On a continent where an underdeveloped transportation infrastructure has long hindered economic growth, a virtual constellation of airports in Central East Africa might well warrant some reason for optimism. A 600-mile-long “Equator Cluster” of airports around Lake Victoria, in Entebbe, Uganda; Nairobi, Kenya; Dar es Salaam and Kilimanjaro, Tanzania; and Kigali, Rwanda, all support the growth of aviation traffic in the East African region.

Given the invasion of intercontinental routes by the international majors, regional airlines serving the five airports stand to benefit. Qatar Airways flies direct to Nairobi and serves Entebbe, Kigali, Dar es Salaam and Kilimanjaro with a single flight each, while Emirates Airline serves Dar es Salaam, Entebbe and Nairobi. Another notable player serving the concentration of airports–Turkish Airlines–in December added Kilimanjaro as the last of the five to join its network. Locally, Kenya Airways harbors ambitions to serve every capital in Africa, and is fast turning Nairobi into East Africa’s main hub, while Tanzania-based Fastjet has also hinted at pan-African ambitions.

Growth can’t come soon enough to this region, whose people aspire to economic prosperity every bit as acutely as their brothers and sisters in West Africa. The IMF forecast GDP per capita of less than $1,000 in 2013 for Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda. But the sheer volume of traffic flocking from those locations into the Persian Gulf region belies the paltry economic progress, and flights to Dubai, for example, rarely run less than full, allowing Emirates to increase its fares.

Ethiopian Airlines’ hub at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa accounts for the Equator Cluster’s main rival in the race to establish east-west Africa regional connectivity, as the oil and gas boom in West Africa drives the economies of Angola (2013 GDP per capita of $6,000), Nigeria and Ghana ($1,675 each).

Built in the 1970s, Entebbe Airport needs an upgrade, but the government has struggled to find funding and international investors are in short supply. Officials have also talked of plans for improving the logistics route to Mombasa Port with a new four-lane road to Kampala. Meanwhile, Air Uganda began flights to Mogadishu on July 8, illustrating the Equator Cluster’s contribution to Somalia’s rehabilitation.

East African countries have even started to attract outside businesses to set up inside their borders. “You can go online and register your company in Rwanda in 48 hours,” said RwandAir general manager Alice Katiti. “[The process is] transparent.”