ADEFUNKE ADEYEMI: Air Connectivity Can Contribute Billions of Dollar to GDPs in Africa

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Adefunke Adeyemi,

The Regional Director for Advocacy and Strategic Relations of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) for Africa, Ms. Adefunke Adeyemi, is an expert in the aviation industry. She has invested about 15 years in the sector, focusing on bringing value and international standards to the industry within the region, and helping to transform lives and the business environment through her work and initiatives. Adeyemi, who was 31 years old when she was appointed the head of legal and company secretary of Virgin Nigeria Airways in 2005, became head of operations of IATA in English-speaking West Africa in 2008. She rose through the ranks to assume her current position in the association, covering 54 countries of Africa. In this interview with Idowu Sowunmi, Adeyemi speaks  about her life, work and views on encouraging and empowering  more women to take  leadership positions in African aviation industry and other sectors

As the Regional Director for Advocacy and Strategic Relations of IATA for Africa, what is the focus of your work?

I am passionate about aviation and its immense impact on socio-economic development. My current role involves engaging with a wide range of stakeholders – governments, policy makers, influencers, business and private sector, and even the wider public – to promote the value of aviation and ensure the sustainability of an industry that connects and enriches the world.

Aviation has truly transformed the world as we know it today with its ability to connect people, places, goods and services, cultures, interests and so on, across the world. Aviation industry has created more than 65.5 million jobs worldwide, implying that on an average aviation jobs are 4.4 times more productive than other jobs. By opening markets and enabling knowledge transfer and other catalytic effects, aviation industry has also made jobs in other sectors more productive. Globally, each aviation job generates $108,700 in gross value added (GVA), including the global GDP supported by 5.6 million other on-airport (retail, car rental, government agencies such as customs and immigration, freight forwarders, some catering); 2.7 million airlines (flight and cabin crews, executives, ground services, check-in, training and maintenance staff); 1.2 million civil aerospace (engineers and designers of civil aircraft, engines and components); and 233,000 air navigation service providers (air traffic controllers, executives).

Aviation industry has also made more than $2.7 trillion global economic impact (including direct, indirect, induced and tourism catalytic), accounting for 35 per cent of world trade by value. The industry facilitates businesses, investments, trade, social interactions, discovery and adventure and humanitarian services across the world, thereby making it a key catalyst for socio-economic growth and development. In countries like Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia and Rwanda that have made aviation part of their national strategic development and planning, aviation-related activities help accounted for between 12-30 per cent of the GDPs of those countries. With continued support to the industry through an enabling regulatory or policy framework and better collaboration, these figures could be substantially improved and spread around most countries in Africa.

In spite of all the benefits that aviation brings, in many parts of the world and in this region, aviation is still seen as a luxury and so many times it is treated as a source of revenue to fund other government expenditures. Aviation, for the most part of Africa, is burdened by high costs due to heavy taxes and charges or ill-conceived regulations and policies. We work very closely with regulators, governments and other industry associations to promote the benefits of the industry and to encourage enabling regulation or policies. More recently, the drop in commodity prices also adversely affected the industry across the entire region. It is an industry that has many challenges, but also has many opportunities.

With your position, how have you been encouraging Africa to invest in the aviation industry and use it to address the challenges surrounding air connectivity in the continent?

One of the key projects I have been privileged to work on over the past five years is on enhancing intra-African connectivity. Africa is not very well connected in terms of air services. In many cases, the only way to get to countries in Africa is to travel for days or through other continents. The lack of robust connectivity is making Africa to lose out on immense socio-economic benefits and growth opportunities. In 2014, in collaboration with some of our regional partners across Africa, we commissioned a study, which provides an indication of how Africa can experience a significant and positive renaissance through enhanced air connectivity. The study looked at 12 countries across Africa and quantified the numerous benefits that would accrue to those countries, their sub-regions and Africa as a whole if they were to fully open their skies to connect with each other. It showed that full air connectivity across those 12 countries would generate an additional $1.3 billion in GDP, over 150,000 new jobs and numerous other socio-economic benefits in just those 12 countries. Imagine what this could mean if all 54 countries in Africa open up to each other. It would be a game changer! Air connectivity can generate billions of dollar in GDP and create millions new jobs and numerous socio-economic benefits in Africa.

What gives you these audacious hopes?

We are beginning to see some positive changes. Following the launch of the Single African Air Transport Market in 2018, the African Continental Free Trade Area last year and clear implementation Action Plans by all relevant stakeholders driven by the African Civil Aviation Commission and the African Union, I remain optimistic with the belief that in the near future, Africa’s connectivity challenges will become a thing of the past. To ensure intra-African connectivity, 32 African countries have signed up to the Single African Air Transport Market and for the African Continental Free Trade Area, 52 African countries have signed up. I believe Africa is closer to the Promised Land.       

Of course, given the current state of connectivity in Africa, this campaign has become personally interesting for me, because I have to travel for days just to give a one-hour presentation in some parts of Africa. I’m sure anyone, who has ever had to travel a lot across Africa can relate with this experience. Some think I’m a dreamer for trying to change the status quo, but a friend once said one cannot have a vision without a dream. A vision also becomes reality through setting clear goals, planning and execution. I desire a fully connected Africa. I’m fully committed to this vision and I’m sure millions of others are too. So I’m calling on all my fellow dreamers out there. Let’s join hands together to promote the prosperity of Africa through aviation.

I’m also passionate about Africa and its development. I want to see Africa take its rightful place in the global arena and aviation can help tremendously here. Africa is a continent of over 1.2 billion people with a huge geographical spread that is largely land locked. The continent needs a fully integrated multi-modal transport system supported by road and rail networks, but since these are not yet in existence in many parts of Africa, aviation is a viable method to move people, goods and services across the region.

You are a woman in senior leadership position in IATA and aviation in Africa and the world. What are your views on the idea of encouraging and empowering more women into leadership positions across the aviation value chain in Africa?

I believe in women and in women as leaders. We have so much to offer. For starters, aviation has traditionally been a male-dominated industry with the majority of women, who work in the sector working as cabin crew or in ground services. There are very few women in top or senior leadership positions within the sector and they account for about three per cent of airline CEOs in the world! Some of the top 10 highest paying jobs are in aviation – pilots and flight engineers but women only represent about seven per cent of this group globally. Interestingly, women now account for about 50 per cent of global business travel. The issue of Women Empowerment and Gender balance continues to dominate the global discourse across many industries and governments and aviation is not exempted. The first ever Global Aviation Gender Summit was held in August 2018 and was very enlightening as it showcased some very important factors that contribute to low female participation in leadership and technical roles, such as social conditioning, culture, stereotyping and unconscious bias amongst many others.

Are you saying women should be put into any leadership position just like that or use quota system?

My message here is not about tokenism or women playing the gender card, rather to focus on how to support and encourage women to aim high and attain the highest levels of leadership and achievement in spite of the challenges and contributory factors. It is about ensuring that through the combination of what I call the 4Cs – Confidence, Competence, Capital and Charisma, women in and outside of aviation in Africa and the world over can achieve their dreams and reach the top in the corporate and business environments. What are the 4Cs? Confidence is about self-belief, professionalism and positive comportment. In order to reach the top and to achieve anything worthwhile, you must first believe that you can. As women, we need to build up our confidence, so we can seize opportunities in the industry as they arise. We don’t have to be 100 per cent qualified for a role before we apply for it, which is the tendency of women. Competence is about hard work, credibility and integrity. It’s important to do everything you do to the best of your ability and develop competencies that are transferrable and scalable. It’s also essential to work hard and be smart, letting your work and winning personality be your calling cards. This gets you noticed, no matter what role you’re in and will help you on your journey to the top. Capital in this context is mainly about self-development, creating a niche and cultivating your personal brand. Be known for good work, quality, dependability and so on and it will get you far. Finally, Charisma speaks for itself. Being pleasant, compelling, likeable and charming are not weaknesses, but rather strengths that will help propel everyone on their respective journeys.

So, how much of this has IATA embraced?

IATA is being proactive about this issue, realising that there was a need to encourage our female workforce to become their best selves and to reach for greater heights. We recently launched our 25 by 2025 campaign, designed to ensure that IATA, airlines and companies in the air transport ecosystem have at least 25 per cent of women in senior leadership positions by 2025. There have also been other initiatives, starting with women in leadership and a diversity and inclusion programme, both of which I was privileged to head in the region until 2016. We also helped with building confidence among our female workforce through what we called Gravitas training, mentoring through a ‘Big Sister Little Sister’ programme and inviting successful women and men from across the region to share their life, work or business experiences to motivate our female workforce at various forums and events. We also launched a new Women in Aviation Leadership Diploma in 2018 and I was privileged to have delivered the first two modules on the programme in Johannesburg in 2018 and Lagos in 2019. I’d like to encourage all Nigerian and African airline executives to nominate their female workforce to attend. The next cohort will be in Kigali, Rwanda in March 2020.

I also believe that both men and women have a role to play in not just mentoring, but also sponsoring talented individuals and helping them achieve their goals. There is a lot of mentoring going on, but sponsoring is especially important though not quite as prevalent. Sponsoring is where a senior or leader in any field or industry takes you under their wing and provides you with opportunities that you may never otherwise have or to take a chance on you. I believe this is what the UN HeForShe initiative tries to capture, ensuring that men who have been successful in various fields actively develop women. This is actually one of the key contributory factors in the lives of many successful people and should be strongly encouraged.

As a woman who holds a position such as this, have you ever faced, or are there any challenge you face in your workplace being a woman in this position in Africa such as being regarded as the weaker sex or filling a quota?

The argument of women being the weaker sex is long gone. We have women leaders in aviation and also in Africa. The African Union Commissioner is woman. The Secretary-General of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is a woman. The former Secretary-General of African Civil Aviation Commission (AfCAC) is a woman. We have amazing women airline CEOs in RwandAir, Air Botswana and Mango, director-generals of civil aviation authorities and other leading women across the value chain. Outside of the industry, we have amazing women chief executives, chair persons and business owners abounding in every sector in Nigeria and across the continent. So, the glass ceiling has been broken globally and in Africa. The issue is we need more! IATA as an organisation has also taken key steps to empower women, including me; women are in several key positions of leadership and responsibility. So, while the barriers are slowly, but surely being broken, there’s still a long way to go. There should be more women at the top of management and in strategic jobs, not just because we are women, but because we create and add significant value. Having said that, one does face a few challenges, mainly culture, perception and mindset. The most important thing though is doing what you need to do with competence and confidence using your capital and charisma, and you will be respected and well regarded, not just merely tolerated. This has been my experience.

How do you think we can address the skills gap and ageing workforce in African aviation?

Africa has a very ageing workforce. For example, the average age of a flight engineer in Africa is about 60 years old! This is on a continent where the average age of the total population is 19! In addition, Africa has one of the fastest projected passenger growth numbers for the next 20 years. These figures tell us that there will be an increased demand for aviation services, with the necessary workforce that can support these projections. The declining number of aviation professionals in Africa due to age, retirement and skill flight create opportunities for women and youth to move in, given that they are a vital part of Africa’s human resources. This means there should be no limits to women and youth in Nigeria and across the continent embracing aviation as a career choice and I’m very passionate about this. We need to channel and encourage girls into S.T.E.M (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) so we build up the pipeline for technical skills in aviation like flight engineers, pilots, aerospace engineers etc. However, having a career in aviation is not only about becoming a pilot or flight engineer, as awesome as these jobs are. There are so many other areas to consider that need skilled workforce to sustain them. General management, air traffic controllers, environmentalists, engineers, technicians, IT, aircraft manufacturing, mechanics, designers, lawyers, airport development, the list goes on. We expect the industry to continue to grow and that growth can only be supported by a skilled workforce in all these areas. Aviation can form a new career path for thousands and millions in Nigeria and across Africa, especially in today’s world where many new career avenues have opened up and are being actively embraced in society.

What advice would you give to women who want to be leaders in the aviation or any other industry?

You can do it! Focus on the 4Cs – Confidence, Competence, Capital and Charisma. Don’t be daunted by anything. Believe you are already a leader while recognising the value in collaboration and team work. Identify your mentors and sponsors and grow with them. Nothing is impossible. Impossible is nothing!

Tell us some more about you. What are your interests and hobbies?

You must already have guessed that travelling is one of my interests and passions. I always wanted to travel; I guess I got that from my father who travelled the world over his academic pursuits. I’m blessed to have a job that allows me to combine some of the things I love dearly all in one – advocacy and travel! Travelling opens the mind because it makes you realise that there’s a great big world out there, with different peoples, cultures, customs and experiences. It keeps you centred, knowing that you are only one out of billions! It’s been wonderful to have had the opportunity to see a lot of the world and its sheer splendor; and I look forward to seeing a lot more. I love life and its simple pleasures – great company, food and wine, books, music. I collect beautiful and creative objects, art and fashions. I love my family and friends and enjoy spending time with them, although given how much I travel, one of the downsides is that I don’t see them enough anymore: you lose touch with your base, your network. After a while, people forget to ask you to meet up or for events on the assumption that you’re not around. I’ve always kept active through various sports and I have been running and swimming for years. I joined a running club few years ago, the Road Warriors, an awesome group of professionals who live an amazing lifestyle through being conscious of their health while still having a fun and enlightened life. Our motto is ‘Eat Right, Run More, Inspire.’ I now run full marathons, thanks to this group, the last one being the Lagos Marathon which was tough but I got through it! I’m also involved in volunteer and charity work, recently with an initiative called Forty for Good, in collaboration with a friend, bringing together a group of people who all turned 40 in 2014, to contribute towards selected causes in cash or kind throughout the year. We supported the disabled elderly, children in need, childless widows and fertility. Also, we provide support in advocacy and project implementation for government and companies, in addition to setting up a non-profit organisation focusing on female empowerment.

What can you tell us about your upbringing?

My parents are my heroes. They made a huge impact on my life. While we had a strict upbringing, the values they taught us have stayed with me and I appreciate them so much more every passing day. Their unconditional love, wise counsel, generosity of spirit and belief in me have really pushed me and got me through life, especially in tough times. They’re my greatest champions. My father was an academic, renowned Emeritus Professor Adedokun Adeyemi of blessed memory, Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Human Rights at University of Lagos for almost 50 years, and my mother an entrepreneur and woman of business now a pastor and is fully sold out to God. 

I am from a family of six, but we lost our brother in 2018. I thank all of us are doing well in our different areas of human endeavours. I grew up on a university campus around like-minded people, it was a real community with everyone knowing you, your parents and contributing to your personal development. We were encouraged to read widely, be curious and to be ourselves. My parents had an open-door policy so, throughout our time on campus and outside of it, we always had family, friends and even strangers passing through. That taught me about generosity, tolerance and being open. It was interesting growing up in such a combined but cohesive household. Life on campus was charmed. But it was a different ball game when we moved off campus in 2005. 

We realised that we’d been living in a kind of utopia! It seemed every household was its own local government, having to provide for basic utilities like power, water and security. It was an interesting experience indeed but we got used to this fast like almost everyone!

What is your final word?

Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the millions of working women out there. Women, who work, either as home-makers or running their own businesses or working with different organisations to achieve their dreams and to help support their families, friends and communities. You are all simply awesome. We all contribute so much to the world in our own way. Whatever it is you do, take pride in it, strive to be the best you can be and make your mark on this world. I’m proud to be one of you.