Captain KETHOTSWE DICK MULALU (TRE, DE)
Economic diversification in Botswana has been an ongoing topic, apparently with little to nothing really being achieved. Our unsustainable dependance on mineral wealth has truly been exposed by the emergence of the corona virus pandemic. Life in its essence, is simply driven by reality more than anything. Any sensible Motswana would have known that the dependance on minerals, which are not a renewable commodity, was and continues to be a risky proposition. Naturally, minerals underground, do eventually get depleted and/or their mining methods become extremely difficult, expensive and/or dangerous. Whichever is the case, when the wealth from them runs out, ghost towns inevitably emerge. Selibe Phikwe is a living example after the closure of the BCL copper mine. Botswana depends so much on the diamond mining, reality dictates that they, too, will shut down some day; and if no other forms of wealth generation for the country are in place, we will have a ghost country. This is a reality fact! The drive for economic diversification must take center stage. It should be a mandatory national agenda which all citizens must buy in. Batswana and our government must detox from this life pattern of living for the moment, and critically think and plan accordingly for future generations.
I, as an aviation professional, through this article would like to contribute to the economic diversification plan. I do hope this may inspire other aviation professionals, from all fields of the aviation profession to also add their part/views. Moreover, I hope other professionals from other professions/ trades may, too, come up with similar articles. And above all else, I hope the powers that be at the government enclave, can at least get to read our submissions and perhaps borrow some parts so that we indeed truly embark on an economic diversification plan. An economic diversification plan based on facts and reality, and absolutely nothing else!
All over the world airlines play crucial roles to the economies of their respective countries. They form part of the economic backbone. This is where Air Botswana should come in. Sadly, Air Botswana currently seems too handicapped to play the role it should in Botswana. Ours is a national career that appears to be more of cosmetic and pride purpose. What is it that can be done to turn Air Botswana into an effective airline that can be a force to reckon with regionally and globally? Plenty!
First, we need to change the Air Botswana business model and culture. The current one, that seems to be content on placing more emphasis on simply being a government owned airline, donning national colours, fully controlled and under the influence of the ministry of transport, and offering some kind of employment, has been in existence since the 1960s, when Bechuanaland Airways was established. This model has truly outlived its time. To prove how ineffective this kind of business model is, look no further than to all our neighbours who employed same. Air Namibia, Air Zimbabwe, Air Malawi, Lesotho Airways, Royal Swazi Airlines, Zambia Airways, LAM Mozambican airlines and recently South African Airways, are all basically defunct! Again, reality simply tells us that sooner or later our dear Air Botswana will too slump and join its sister airlines in death, if there is no intervention.
Airlines business by nature are very costly, especially aircraft acquisition and operation. It is also true that the financial rewards and benefits are good if the right airline model is employed. And these rewards go way beyond the airline itself, to all industries supported by air travel. Airline business is primarily based, and supported by passenger and freight cargo volumes; therefore, it is obvious that higher volumes are most desirable. The current Air Botswana business model, primarily based on Botswana as the main market is a hard ask. Botswana with her mere population of around 2.3 million people cannot realistically support an airline to any meaningful profitability and contribution to the economy. Let us borrow a business plan leaf from the likes of Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways, Emirates, Qatar, Etihad and Singapore Airlines to name but a few. These airlines are global players, carrying millions of passengers and high volumes of cargo yearly. Of great importance, it should be noted that most of the passengers and cargo they carry, close to 90% are not destined for their respective capitals but rather transit to different parts of the world. These airlines fully utilize their regions to bolster their passenger and cargo volumes, something that their respective countries alone cannot match. We can also derive great inspirations from the country of Rwanda. It is unbelievable what they have achieved as a country in a short period of time after the horrible genocide. They, too, came up with an efficient world class airline, that operates across three different continents. The big question therefore is, what stops Air Botswana from doing the same? Absolutely nothing!
It is all about the will and vision of Air Botswana and the government of Botswana. As we have established, Botswana on its own does not possess enough passenger and cargo volumes. So where can we get these? Very simple, apply the same methodology as utilized by the airlines mentioned above. Botswana geographically is located in the heart of Southern Africa. Let us come up with a new Air Botswana business model, that will make Air Botswana the airline of choice, for both passengers and cargo into Southern Africa, that is, let us turn the whole of Southern Africa into an Air Botswana market. The overseas passenger and cargo volumes into Southern Africa are huge. Around sixty-one (61) million international passengers are flown from Africa to the rest of the world yearly, and a third of that originates from Southern Africa. Attracting just 15% of that into Air Botswana is a very realistic proposition that will definitely yield huge financial gains. Passenger fares and air cargo rates are calculated per nautical miles flown. Currently O R Tambo airport Johannesburg handles more passengers and cargo into Southern Africa, and a huge percentage of this is transit traffic into Southern Africa capitals such as Gaborone, Lusaka Harare, Maputo, Manzini, Maseru, Blantyre, Windhoek etc.
In our Southern African region, overseas passenger and cargo yield way much better financial gains for airlines as compared to domestic operations. And for Air Botswana in particular tapping directly into the international passenger and cargo revenue from overseas flights will be a great move. Almost all our overseas tourists’ transit via Johannesburg and Air Botswana gains very little by flying them from Johannesburg to Maun and Kasane, the bulk of the fare value is pocketed by the big carriers, who fly them over greater distances. The current passenger loads for Air Botswana between Johannesburg, Maun and Kasane have basically dwindled, thanks to the airline’s monopoly of alliances. Now most of the tourists are flown by South African Airlink, courtesy of the South African Airways membership to Star Alliance. The logical response to this is for Air Botswana to capture these passengers from source and fly them directly into Maun, Botswana.
Let us equip Air Botswana to fight better. A totally new business plan is needed, with a solid mandate and vision to transform Air Botswana into a financially independent airline. The government must come up with an aviation knowledge and experience-based task force that will transform Air Botswana into a world airline with the whole of Southern Africa as its customer base. We have qualified and experienced aviation professionals, both home and in diaspora to undertake this task. The plan should entail working with either Airbus or Boeing to supply medium to long haul aircraft, both of these reputable aircraft manufacturers have excellent equipment to suit the proposed business model. Air Botswana will then operate a strictly professional set up, with zero political interference, clean and serviceable equipment, operated by properly qualified crew, offering good inflight service, world class catering and in-flight entertainment for both business and economy cabins. It is very crucial also to have at the helm of the airline, a properly qualified and experienced management team, fully supported by a knowledgeable board of directors. Above all, operate a safe and reliable airline with a high rate of on time departures and arrivals, and build an excellent reputation.
Transform Maun into a connection hub of choice for all passengers and cargo destined for Southern Africa. Why Maun some people may ask? To take on OR Tambo in Southern Africa as a connection hub? Certainly yes, head on! We as a country need to start believing that we can achieve great things. We need to start believing that we too can build capacity to compete with the best. Over reliance on others is a weakness. (See how we continue to rely on Ethiopian Airlines during this ongoing coronavirus pandemic to fly in our vaccines and covid equipment!) Just a couple of years ago, Dubai, Addis Ababa, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Singapore and their respective airlines could not be mentioned amongst top airlines and connection hubs. Today it is a totally different story. Air Botswana and Maun airport can replicate the same success, perhaps even better. Maun airport has around it, as an added advantage, the Okavango Delta, one of the finest tourist destinations in the world. And not far from it, the town of Kasane with its great Chobe National Park. The Ngamiland and Chobe region are gifted to make Maun international airport a very interesting and attractive hub. There are so many positives about Botswana that should work in our favour.
As explained above, passenger and cargo fares are calculated per nautical miles flown, meaning that Air Botswana will then be in an advantageous position over the competition on offering lower passenger and cargo fares. Flight distance and travelling time for passengers and cargo from most southern African capitals via Maun, to most overseas destinations will be reduced. Naturally passengers prefer lower fares, shorter travelling times, short and hassle-free connections, and that Maun can offer without any shadow of doubt. The competitors, especially the Middle East operators, who currently have the lion share of the passenger and cargo volume in and out of Southern Africa, will have a tough time beating a well-equipped Air Botswana connecting Southern Africa to the world. All of them are forced by regulation to fly to their respective destinations worldwide via their country-of-origin bases, and that adds to more trip time and distance for the passengers. They, for example cannot offer direct flights between Maun and London.
Flying from Maun will also allow Botswana tourist operators, not only sell their Okavango and Chobe holiday packages, but also the opportunity to work with the neighboring countries tour operators to include other destinations/resorts in their itineraries. This will add to more passengers for Air Botswana. Air Botswana will then fly directly from Maun to overseas destinations such as London, Paris, Frankfurt, Lisbon, Bangkok, Guanzou, Mumbai, Dubai etc. In the region Air Botswana will offer connections from Maun to Johannesburg, Cape Town, Harare, Lusaka, Blantyre, Maputo, Windhoek and more. The current domestic route network of course will be maintained, albeit better planned and scheduled to gel into the bigger scheme of the new business plan.
As already stated, the airlines in the region have gone defunct, Air Botswana should be transformed and take advantage of this gap, that will allow it to effectively play its rightful role in the Botswana economic diversification journey. Yes, it is obvious that once the world airlines take notice of Air Botswana and Maun turned into a world airline and a good connection hub respectively, they too will want a piece of it.
The benefits and financial gains to turning Air Botswana into a world class airline are unimaginable, with ripple effects. Thousands of jobs and revenue will be created, not only from the airline but also from related industries such as travel agencies, hotels, tour operators, vehicle leasing companies, CAAB staffing, airport police, airport security, customs and immigration, cargo handlers, aircraft handlers, cleaning services, airport shops and restaurants etc… This will be welcome as it will bring more revenue for the country through aircraft landing, parking and navigation fees, handling fees, hotel bookings and airline office space rentals to name but a few examples. Overall government revenue through tax collection will increase significantly.
In conclusion I urge the government and people of Botswana to dream big, to believe in the collective vision that it is possible to diversify our economy for the benefit of all, and that civil aviation is one of the tools.