Food export records 50% surge as airlines scramble for cargo
• Cashew, garlic, ginger, pap, yam others top airfreight to Europe, U.S.
• Why scheduled carriers may not benefit from demand, vaccine distribution, say, experts
• 80 tonnes of foodstuffs flown out per week
• Nigeria yet to have standard packaging for export, says Fagbemi
Despite the general slump in the Year 2020 air cargo movement, Nigerian export has recorded a marginal growth with food and perishable items accounting for 50 per cent of new uptake.
Air cargo data obtained from major players in local aviation showed that exports are steadily on the upward movement, though imports declined as the COVID-19 pandemic burned fiercely.
The Guardian learned that the development is not unconnected with the growing penchant among Nigerians to export packaged local goods in exchange for scarce foreign currency – a more lucrative alternative to passenger traffic and tourism that have been crippled by a coronavirus.
Besides, local exporting is further encouraged by global airlines’ scramble for available cargo to cushion the loss of passenger traffic.
Though local airlines are not left out in the dynamics of market inventories, some of the scheduled carriers are having a big struggle readjusting passenger fleet to cargo services.
Stakeholders affirmed that exportable goods are locally available and indigenous airlines have a fleet to mop up produce. However, they expressed doubt about airlines’ readiness to invest in the requisite human capacity to maximise emerging opportunities in cargo demand and supply, especially in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and related items.
Findings showed that annual airfreight traffic marginally dropped last year due to the COVID-19 lockdown and disruptions, but export terminals in Lagos have been purring and significantly busy with perishable items in long queues.
The “dollar spinning” food items are yam tuber, ginger, cocoa butter, palm kernel oil, sesame seed, garlic, cassava flour, cashew nuts, honey, shrimps, live snail, chili pepper, fruit juice, vegetables, and poultry products.
Others are textiles, rubber garments, gallstone, charcoal, cotton, cosmetics and soap, wigs, and hair attachments, among others.
An agent at the cargo terminal of Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Olasunkanmi Akinsiku, said the items had lately become regular in daily consignments brought in by the public.
“Almost everybody has a food item to export now. Even the airlines, more than before, are taking packaged items freely. Before now, there are certain items they would not accommodate or would rather charge heavily to airlift. Now, they rarely reject such offers; which is good for everybody.”
Managing Director of Mainstream Cargo, Segun Adewale, confirmed that export had lately improved with at least 50 per cent of the spike in perishable items.
Adewale noted that the United Kingdom remains Nigeria’s primary destination for foodstuff followed by Germany and the United States.
He explained that the near collapse of passenger traffic had robbed off on cargo. “Those foodstuffs and perishables that would have travelled with passengers in bits are now exported in packages and volumes. A lot of people are seeing it more as good business than before.
“So, we see an increase in perishables leaving the country. Nigeria is already building a big business around the export market. For example, three consolidators already move approximately 80 tonnes of foodstuffs per week from Nigeria. That explains the surge in export,” he said.
Indeed, a local firm, Bubex Foods, lately flagged off the export of branded pap from Lagos to the United Kingdom. Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Bubex Foods, Ijeoma Ndukwe, said the company was targeting 20 per cent of the 35 million Nigerians in Europe.
Ndukwe noted that pap scaled the European and American integrity tests before being exported, and has raised confidence that the company could export at least 450 million tonnes of pap yearly.
Statistics from the Nigerian Aviation Handling Company (NAHCO) and Skyway Aviation Handling Company (SAHCO) that jointly process 95 per cent of all export and import cargoes through Nigerian airports, showed about 16 per cent decline in cumulate imports for the Year 2020, compared with 2019 figures. Export on the other hand also recorded cumulative 10 per cent decline for 2020 following months of lockdown and flight restrictions due to the pandemic.
However, a breakdown of NAHCO figures showed that the company recorded an average of 1.1 million metric tonnes (MT) of exports monthly from August to December 2020. It was about a 15 to 20 per cent increase in export compared to the same period in 2019 that had an average of 900,000MT monthly.
For SAHCO, air cargo exports increased marginally by five per cent in 2020; from 10.3 million kg in 2019 to 10.9 million in 2020.
Adewale added that with the lush golden era of passenger traffic volume halted if not over, global airlines were condemned to either lease idle fleets to developing economies or convert some for cargo services to stand a chance of survival. Consequently, airlines are also encouraging air cargo patronage to fill the cabin.
He said further that the challenge, however, is the readiness of local scheduled carriers to invest in the requisite human capacity to handle cargo, especially dangerous goods.
“The question we should also ask (local carriers) is that do they have the capacity to handle dangerous goods? The airlines need well-trained and experienced hands to manage items classified under dangerous goods because any mistake will cause a major problem.
“That is why a lot of airlines run away from cargo. Goods that will appear ordinary to others are often not like that in aviation. So, the team must be very vast and experienced. But are the airlines ready to invest in such training?”
While about 90 per cent of global trade is carried by sea, air cargo transports over $6 trillion worth of goods yearly and accounts for about 35 per cent of a trade by value.
Recently, Nigerian cargo airline, Allied Air, acquired a Boeing 737-800SF freighter jet, the first of such aircraft in Africa. The aircraft is the youngest 737-800 in the world to be converted from passenger cabin to freighter. Management of the airline said the investment was part of the move to make the most of emerging airfreight globally.
Similarly, the biggest airline on the continent, Ethiopian Airline, said its prompt decision to convert passenger planes to cargo operations at the beginning of the pandemic, helped the airline weather the devastating storm.
Building on its cargo fleet of 10 Boeing 777s and two Boeing 737s, Ethiopian Airlines converted 25 passenger aircraft into cargo planes to crisscross over 75 countries amid the pandemic. “We have been loading cargo on passenger seats. We have been using all means possible,” the Chief Executive Officer of the airline, Tewolde Gebremariam, said recently.
Secretary-General of the Aviation Safety Round Table Initiative (ASRTI), a think-tank group of the industry, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), said the cargo option readily avails a lifeline for struggling airlines globally and in Nigeria.
Ojikutu regretted that local airlines neither made an attempt to approach the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) to reconfigure their aircraft for cargo operations nor prepare for vaccines airlifting internationally, continentally, regionally, or locally.
He warned that the Post-COVID passenger operations could be worse than during lockdown, “if the Nigeria airlines would not add cargo operations to their business plans. Air Peace can use its 777 just as Lufthansa used its 767 planes to distribute cargoes during the lockdown.”
Chief Executive Officer of NAHCO Plc, Tokunbo Fagbemi, said adjusting to the new dynamics of airfreight came with its own challenges, but investments in humans and equipment had helped the ground handling company to cope with both emerging trends.
Fagbemi said the growing cargo export could yield more if local stakeholders could make the most of its opportunities.
“I think our domestic airlines should carry more cargo. The other thing is that we have not as a country structured cargo well enough to optimise the benefits. For instance, there is no standard packaging yet for Nigeria. When you see goods from China, you readily know from their packaging. The same from England, India, even African countries, and so on. That is a lot of work that goes into cargo packaging. Some of them may depend on the government closing its eyes to some banned items.
“Fruits that are exported to England from Africa have actually been packaged up to 90 per cent from here. It is just the wrapper of the supermarket that is added to getting there. Our people must also be trained to do that. They look like small things, but they are part of the standards in the international market.
“Again, a lot of people don’t know that they can export aso-ebi, for example. People have started doing that since COVID-19. There is so much you can export without leaving your base or travelling. So, let us optimise the cargo opportunities. Nothing stops me from buying tubers of yam from Abuja and put them on the airlines. Some people do it, but not many. There are a lot of agro-related businesses in local aviation.”