|SPORE Bulletin of the CTA No. 38 (CTA Spore, 1992, 16 p.)|
Reduced air freight capacity is handicapping West African producers. If there is no competition between airlines producers cannot shop around for the best deals in freight transport, and so are powerless to fight off East Africa's increasing share of the export market.
North-South freight transport by UTA/Air Afrique has fallen sharply: the tonnage carried of the 14 main exports from francophone Africa dropped from 32,738t in 1985 to 21,671t in 1989. Only a few years ago it was still perceived as a priority to fill the cargo holds of aircraft which were returning empty to Europe. Due in the main to the economic crisis, Africa has been importing less while at the same time increasing production (tropical fruit and out-ofseason vegetables) for the European export market. Now, only at Lome, Douala and Niamey does the volume of air freight from the North exceed that leaving from Africa. On the Abidjan, Dakar, Ouagadougou and Conakry routes the greater amount goes from South to North.
Space on combined passenger-freight flights (40 tonnes) or on cargo-only planes (95 tonnes) is increasingly limited and so exports of pineapples, avocados, mangos, pawpaws, exotic plants and cut flowers are not always successful in finding a place. And things are unlikely to improve; that is the message being received by the Comite de liaison Europe-Afrique-Caraibes-Pacifique (COLEACP). The only solution for the ACP countries would seem to be to produce goods of a sufficiently high quality and value that the airlines will be able to get some viable return from them.
Despite efforts to maintain freight levels (extra cargo space has been provided on routes from Ouagadougou, Dakar, Lome and Conakry), the problems are on-going. On some flights planes are switched, or cargo is poorly treated or not handled at all at stop-overs. This means that airlines have to announce a change in their carrying capacity without notice. For instance, at Dakar the cargo capacity of Air France planes depends on how much the planes coming in from South America or the West Indies are carrying.
No scope for charters
The exporters believe that the restructuring of Air Afrique and the current pressures on the UTA/Air Afrique/Air France triumvirate are likely to mean that the Franco-African cartel will try to gain a monopoly at those African airports which have been seen to welcome 'outside' (ie non-French) companies such as Alitalia or Sabena. The Italians have in fact refused to take part in negotiations, and the Belgians will not budge. Neither do independent cargo charters get much of a look-in.
Some charter flights do use Accra airport in Ghana, and the tariffs for cargo going to Europe via Belgium are only about half those of the scheduled flights.
UTA declares that "one of our priorities is to take perishable goods from land-locked countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso", but this is not always an economically viable enterprise. Freight carried from South to North is charged at a rate of 200-300F CFA per kilo (for vegetables) and companies have to make up with higher rates for North-South cargo, for which they charge an average of 1250F CFA/ kg. Airlines obviously cannot fly out empty, so, since the South imports less and less from Europe, 70% of fresh African produce for Europe goes back on passenger flights. This type of freight carriage, known as 'padding', is relatively profitable for the airlines.
During times of recession some products are more attractive to airlines since they are charged at higher rates. Plants are transported for 390F CFA/kg and cut flowers at 425F CFA.
The success story of Kenyan green beans illustrates the mechanics which govern the market. The product, which is of a high quality and has a regular supply, is favoured by European import companies. Anglophone African states, unlike their French-speaking neighbours where airlines can dictate freight costs, can impose their own price schedules which are generally lower than those fixed by the IATA Conference. In 1990-91 Kenya fixed the rate for freighting green beans "by government decree" at 275F CFA/kg, which was accepted by British Airways, whereas Air France was unable to make a tariff of less than 375F CFA/kg profitable, and was ready to drop out of the competition. French importers, desperate for Kenyan beans, took the panic step of agreeing to pay the difference to Air France.
How to stop protectionist policies
The total exports of green beans from francophone Africa in 1989-90 amounted to 600t, while Kenya alone despatched some 13,000t. So how can the francophone states stop the protectionist policies of the French airlines?
Despite France's attempt to fix a quota on East African fruit and vegetables, the European Community's decision that there should be free import of produce to Europe from all ACP countries will eventually change things. But the situation for the francophone African states is urgent and all the more alarming because not only do they have to contend with the surge of 'anglophone' fruit and vegetables, but they are also trying to compete with the enormous advance of Latin-American products on European markets.
According to COLEACP the only answer is improved quality, a more regular supply and greater organizational efficiency.