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Unifying Africa’s air market is good; developing its railway network is even better

The operationalization of SAATM is the dawn of a new era when air travel will cease to be the preserve of the rich

Africa’s top air transport managers have started 2023 with their spirits high in the skies. Eighteen countries have agreed to fast-track the Single Africa Air Transport Market –SAATM. This means that half of the 35 countries that ratified this initiative are ready to implement it as soon as possible. There are of course many benefits to the unification of Africa’s air market. However, Africa should not lose sight of greener and cheaper options such as developing an integrated railway network across the continent.

The push for SAATM is an African Union initiative under Agenda 2063 and is expected to deliver big benefits. As the traffic increases, it is estimated that it will add $4.2 billion to the continent’s annual GDP and create over half a million jobs. Most importantly, the immediate benefit is that air ticket prices are expected to fall by 27 percent. This is because when two or more countries declare a single air transport market, the fares for flights connecting them become drastically cheaper given that the ticket price no longer comprises charges imposed by air traffic regulators and tax authorities of these countries. In other words, the operationalization of SAATM is the dawn of a new era when air travel will cease to be the preserve of the rich.

And what is more? The push for SAATM may have an external accelerator that could make it a reality even sooner. The big aviation players particularly in America and the Middle East are eyeing African air carriers in which they want to secure a stake and get a foothold in the continent’s growing market. In their negotiations, these external players will naturally support SAATM, much the same as AU does. Additionally, several African governments are actually courting external carriers, and some are not even averse to selling their national carriers outright to external operators. They reason that there isn’t much gain in operating a loss-making airline just because it carries the country’s flag. At any rate, the train has left the station and there is no going back.

But if Africa really wants to ease the movement of people and goods while at the same time reducing the climate impact of our means of transportation, there is indeed a cheaper and greener option for would-be users and African countries: railways. The push for reducing air traffic has already started to produce effects in other places. China already has the largest electric railway network in the world. In Europe, the year 2023 is also a new dawn for the transport industry. The European Union Commission has just approved France’s ban on flights between destinations that can be connected in two and a half hours or less by train, effective January 1st.

If replicated by other European countries, the ban means that Europe’s skies would be decongested, for the short flights constitute a big chunk of the air traffic there. While both the air operators (who have lost business) and the travelers (who will spend longer travelling and feel inconvenienced) are still bitter about the move, it is a big gain for climate activists.

Indeed, planes are terrible carbon emission culprits. Big birds like Airbus A380 or Boeing 747 can burn 130,000 litres of fuel on a 10-hour flight. But emission is worse for short flights because an aircraft consumes many times more fuel per second as it takes off and climbs until it reaches cruising altitude when its fight with gravity reduces. So on short flights, the plane is still gulping when it starts descending to the destination. A loose analogy is like driving a car in first gear for an hour.

Now think of international flights in Africa like between the airports of Kigali (Rwanda) and Entebbe (Uganda), Kigali and Bujumbura (Burundi), Bujumbura to Kigoma (Tanzania), Entebbe and Nairobi (Kenya). All these international journeys take just minutes, while Entebbe to Juba (South Sudan) is just over an hour. Moreover, all these countries are already under one regional economic union – the East African Community. A unified air market makes sense as flights would become cheaper and more frequent. But these are short flights which are regarded as very “dirty” in terms of emission. And since ‘clean’ flights may not be feasible in the foreseeable future, it would make much more sense to abandon short flights. If prioritizing the railway over flying works for other countries and continents, could it also be right for Africa?

Africa has all that it takes to develop a fully electric railway network connecting all its 54 national economies, moving millions and millions of its people every day far more than planes will do even at half of the current ticket prices. The train tickets would also be cheaper. And the trains would also carry almost all the goods to promote intra-African trade, not to mention the climate benefits associated with adopting electric railways as our primary means of transportation.

Africa has most of what this takes. For example, in just the small southwestern of Uganda, there is enough high-quality iron to construct a railway network covering all of Africa. And near the western end of the mighty Congo river are the Inga falls, which can generate enough clean electric energy to power the Pan-African railway network forever. The technology and the money to put these together can be mobilized from the continent’s immense wealth.

But what we are seeing now are individual African countries separately soliciting and negotiating with external money lenders to finance their railways. These isolated initiatives are unlikely to work in Africa’s favor. For instance, East Africa’s two most linked economies, Kenya and Uganda, which are as connected as Siamese twins, have now admitted that they may never link their railways in the foreseeable future  –  as each is using different gauges, different suppliers, different lenders – despite having spent decades discussing how to link them. The money lenders of course will lend on condition that their contractors come from their countries and will insist on terms that are bound to make the borrower poorer at the end of the day. These things have been known since before independence.

The AU hopefully can still give the continental transport strategy another look and see if it shouldn’t be putting more effort into creating a unified railway network.



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