Olawuyi: Nigeria Aviation Market Too Big to Ignore

Olawuyi: Nigeria Aviation Market Too Big to Ignore

The Chief Commercial Officer of Uganda Airlines, Adedayo Olawuyi said in exclusive interview with THISDAY that Nigeria is a very important African destination the East African carrier must operate in, and take advantage of its huge population. Chinedu Eze presents the excerpts:

What informed the decision for Uganda Airlines to start operation to Nigeria?

Uganda Airlines has been in operations for the past four years. Nigeria being the most populous nation in Africa has definitely been on the business implementation plan for the airline. That is primarily because of the population of the country, and because of the ties that Nigeria has with Uganda, and definitely because of the travelling population that we have in Nigeria. We are trying to build a network in Uganda. We present the flight to 11 destinations. On Saturday, the 7th of October, we just launched our flights to Mumbai, India. So, Nigeria has always been one of those destinations that we have been looking to tap into, considering presently there is no direct flight between Entebbe, Uganda and Nigeria. So, that’s actually in a nutshell what informed that decision to start operations into Nigeria.

Can you give a brief profile of Uganda Airlines?

Yes. Uganda Airlines was restarted in August 28, 2019 by the government of Uganda. We are fully government owned. We are being run primarily by two main ministries, Ministry of Works and Transport and the Ministry of Finance. We commenced operations after the government had purchased six brand new aircraft, which are the aircraft we still have in operation today. We have four Bombardier CRJ-900s, they are 76 seaters in two cabins configuration. 12 in business class, 64 in economy. And we have two A330 new 800 aircraft. The A330 aircraft are in three class configurations, 20 in business, 28 in premium and 210 in economy. So, with this aircraft we are presently operating from our hub in Entebbe, Uganda. We fly to Kenya. In Kenya we have two destinations: Nairobi and Mombasa. In Tanzania we have three destinations. We fly to Dar es Salaam, Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar. We fly into Kinshasa in Congo. We fly to Bujumbura in Burundi. We fly to Juba. We fly to Johannesburg in South Africa. We fly to Mogadishu in Somalia. And we also fly to Dubai. Like I mentioned earlier, we just commenced operations into Mumbai in India, and India is our second international destination. And Lagos, Nigeria, will be our 13th, which we will be commencing on the 19th of October.

Does the government own your airline 100%?

Yes, it is 100% owned by the government.

As a national carrier, are you thinking of maybe in the nearest future bringing in the private sector to partner with the government to drive the national carrier?

The government of Uganda restarted the airline because government understood that there was a vacuum that had been left by the absence of a national carrier. And to be able to drive the economy of the nation, there was a need for that. So primarily, the airline has been funded because it is supposed to be an enabler to be able to push the economy of the country. There are presently no plans to bring in the private sector. Because the government expects that the airline will become profitable at some point in time based on the business implementation. So, we are still fully funded for now.  I don’t know that decision might change in the future but that’s what the decision is today for the airline.

What are your expectations on the Lagos-Entebbe route?

On the Lagos-Entebbe route, we are quite hopeful. When you look at the Market Information Data Tapes (MIDT) data now, looking at the O&D numbers, the original destination between Entebbe and Lagos, the numbers are about 13,000 passengers a year, which normally you would say it’s a very low number for a market as large as Nigeria and Uganda. But we have come to realize that that’s because there’s been no existing traffic flights between the two destinations as a direct flight. We understand from our business that there is always a level of stimulation that will happen in the markets when people see that there is now a direct flight between two destinations. So, our expectations are quite high. We are hoping that we will be able to stimulate a lot more traffic between Entebbe and Lagos, which will be brought by increased opportunities for businesses to be able to have mutual business and the contributions between the two routes. We are expecting that tourism will be able to blossom. We are expecting that we will be able to bring more investors into the country. Uganda also is one of the largest producers of coffee today. We are expecting that we can start to export our coffee to the 220 million people who are in Nigeria. So, it is just trying to link the market of 220 million people to own market here and beyond. Also, we are trying to build a network. We are able to carry Nigerians into other destinations that we travel to. So, these are the expectations that we have on the Lagos and Entebbe route.

Do you think that the relationship between the two countries will improve with direct flights?

Yes, definitely so.  We are quite positive that a direct flight will definitely be able to stimulate the traffic between the two routes. It will stimulate business; it will stimulate relationships between government partnerships. We have had a lot of engagement; like last week in Kampala, we held a Uganda-Nigeria trade and business forum where we brought in companies, Nigerian companies, which are already doing business in Uganda. We brought in investors who are looking at doing business in Nigeria, who are presently based in Uganda. The feedback from that was very positive because everybody seems to have that excitement of being connected to a market as large as Nigeria. The tourism sector also is very excited about that. As you know, there’s been a lot of intra-Africa travel by Africans. So, we want to be able to position ourselves, which is one of the key reasons why the airline was actually set up to promote Uganda as a destination, to promote business and trade, to improve the balance of trade between Uganda and all the other countries that we relate to it. So, we are quite positive that with a direct flight the relationships between the two countries will improve on all the different fronts. That is, you will be shocked to know that presently we have over a thousand Nigerian students who are actually schooling in Uganda. We also have a large community of lecturers, people who are being seconded to come and lecture in Ugandan universities from Nigeria. So, these are the things that we found looking into the market.

There are also a lot of traders, people who are doing business. We have Nigerian banks in Uganda. We have an insurance company, a Nigerian insurance company also operating in Uganda. And we see that these relationships are continuing to grow. While relating with the Ugandan high commission in Abuja, they were also telling us about a lot of companies that have shown interest in doing business, but one of the major hindrances has always been the fact that connecting the two countries would mean you traveling via any of the other hubs in East Africa. Now, if you are going to travel on that route it would take you anything between nine to 24 hours. And this we have been able to cut down to a four-hour trip between Lagos and Entebbe. So, I am sure you can tell that it will definitely improve relations between the two countries and promote Entebbe as a new destination in East Africa for Nigerians to explore.

You know the African Continental Free Trade Area is talking about boosting business, intra-Africa interaction. What other specific things in terms of business do you think a Nigerian investor would like to go into in Uganda?

One of the major things is that recently oil was discovered in Uganda. There are presently some exploration companies now who are drilling and exploring those oil fields that have just been found in Uganda. So, oil and gas will be a major attraction for Nigerian investors in Uganda. I also mentioned coffee. Uganda is one of the biggest exporters of coffee and producers of coffee in Africa and they have very good high-grade coffee. We know that is actually one of the attractions as well for investors. Agriculture is actually also very big here. You will be shocked that dairy milk, production of milk is very, very big in Uganda as well. These are some of the attractions. And not to mention the one that we are trying to push to the world now, which is the tourism.

You will be shocked that we have the big five in Uganda conservation fields. We have national parks, which are fantastic. We have the highest number of mountain gorillas in Uganda. We have some mountains, Mount Zorui, for example, has snow all year round. There are a lot of tourist attractions that we can actually get Nigerians to come and see. These are the things we are trying to show to the world to open up Uganda for people to see the potential that Uganda has in terms of tourism. So, these are a few of the attractions that we think will bring people into Uganda. And definitely we also serve a network. I told you we fly to Johannesburg, we fly to Mombasa, Zanzibar. So, people who actually want to fly can visit all these other places which would also help improve the economy of our country, Uganda.

What is your VISA policy in terms of bringing fellow Africans to Uganda?

The visa policy in Uganda is visa on arrival. There is an online portal where you can apply for visa and you get a visa on arrival once you come into the country. You get an approval, you come in and they are fine, you are good to go. It is a very easy and seamless process and we continue to work with the government to even see how we can get this to be a more seamless process for Africans in general and Nigerians specifically who would like to travel into the country.

Egypt, Kenya, and now Ethiopia have developed tourism packages to attract tourists. How is Uganda promoting tourism and what are the points of attraction for Nigerians?

Thanks for bringing up the religious tourism. That’s also one of the attractions. At a particular month in the year when they celebrate Martyrs Day, we have a lot of Catholics from Nigeria specifically who come into Uganda to come and celebrate the Martyrs Day. But back to your question, so we as a government airline, we also work with other government agencies. One of our key partners is Uganda Tourism Board. And Uganda Tourism Board works with tour operators in Uganda. We have the association of tour operators in Uganda. And we have Togata, which is the union of travel agents. All of these people put together packages, which is what you are referring to. Packages for people that are trying to come into the country to buy a three-day package, a weekend package, a five-day package. You can buy a honeymoon package that takes you through different things, visit the zoo, visit one or two national parks, visit the source of the Nile, which is also in Uganda. We also have the equator point also passing through Uganda. These are things that they can package for you and then we are working with those people to be able to say okay now we want to put flights plus hotels, plus packages together and you can buy all that at a one-stop shop on our website or on the website of the tourism board and you will be able to fly. So, these are part of the attraction that we are bringing into the Nigerian market.

Why did you choose Lagos instead of Abuja as your destination in Nigeria?

Oh yes, we have been getting this question a lot. I wouldn’t say it’s an obvious answer, but Lagos is the economic hub of Nigeria. Definitely we know that is where we will have the bulk of the people. Although we have intentions of flying into Abuja because when we got BASA we were approved to be able to fly into Lagos and Abuja. But we decided to start with Lagos because Lagos has the bigger numbers. But as we continue to interact more, I see that there are actually a lot of people in Abuja and environs as well who will be willing for us to operate the service. So, we are looking at Abuja. Abuja would also come in a very, very short time as well. But Lagos was picked because it has a bigger market size for us to be able to tap from.

We have a hub in Ethiopia. Rwanda is developing one, and now Uganda. Even Kenya. So East Africa is becoming an aviation hub for Africa and the world. How do you do manage connections in this regard?

Yes. Very rightly said, there are lots of big hubs in East Africa. And we at Uganda, we see that we are also rightly positioned to be developing a major hub out of Entebbe, because we are right in the middle of everything. We have the perfect weather, perfect operations at Entebbe airport, which makes it even easier for us to operate. Now developing our hub and being able to connect our passengers from different destinations, that is one of our basic strategies. So, when I pick a passenger from Lagos, within one or two hours’ time, you can connect either to Mumbai or connect to Johannesburg or Kinshasa or Burjumbura or any of the destinations that we fly to. We will try within our best what our fleet allows us to be able to connect them to these destinations. And maybe at this point it might also be good to mention that we are not just opening Mumbai and opening Lagos within the next three to four months. I have a couple of routes that will also be rolling out. We are looking at Guangzhou in China. We are looking at Jeddah and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. We are looking at Lusaka in Zambia. We are looking at Harare in Zimbabwe. We are looking at Abuja, like I mentioned. We have already gotten the operation right to Khartoum before there was unrest there recently. We are looking at other destinations in Congo, apart from Kinshasa, Goma, and Lubumbashi. So, we are expanding very rapidly, and we are hoping that we will be able to provide the level of service that all these other hubs that you mentioned provide, and even be able to improve the services that you get from those people by virtue of this service that we will be offering to our passengers. So, we will be able to offer good connectivity to our Nigerian clientele when they start to fly us.

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