Until now, African airlines have been known for their limited routes and terrible safety record. The continent has also lacked a hub. But Titus Naikuni, the visionary CEO of Kenya Airways, is revolutionising the skies.
Air travel in Africa has a terrible reputation: with less than 4 per cent of the world’s air traffic, it has around one third of its air disasters; around two thirds of the airlines banned by the EU on grounds of safety are African. Many of Africa’s airports are hotspots of small-time corruption, where you are more likely to lose your wallet than find your bag. It also suffers from a lack of direct routes – to travel from one side of the continent to the other often involves going via Europe.
But that reputation is changing and no airline epitomises the turnaround more than Kenya Airways. Since Titus Naikuni became chief executive in 2003, new routes have opened between Nairobi and Monrovia, capital of Liberia, and Contonou in Benin. Kenya Airways now flies to 33 African destinations and eight in Europe, the Gulf and Asia.
Before he can sit down with Monocle, Naikuni has to take a call from Kinshasa, where two days of fighting have left up to 600 people dead and the Kenya Airways’ office ransacked. But Naikuni is used to difficult situations. He was the head of a “dream team” of Kenyan economists funded by the World Bank in 1999 to turn around the country’s crumbling economy, but after disagreements with Kenya’s autocratic then ruler, Daniel Arap Moi, he was sacked. Kenya Airways later asked Naikuni to become its CEO.
Monocle: What state was Kenya Airways in when you took over?
Titus Naikuni: It wasn’t that bad. The infrastructure was there – the aeroplanes, the workforce. It was going down, but it wasn’t really on its knees. It just needed a little bit of nudging to get it together. If you look at situations where an organisation is performing badly, it’s always as a result of people – so that was the key thing we looked at.
M: You are expanding into West Africa with more connections almost every month. Do you intend to open a hub there?
TN: Any time I am out I hear how difficult it is to travel to West Africa. We need to move away from talking to doing.
M: Are new routes profitable?
TN: You don’t look at the route on its own. As well as taking passengers from Nairobi to West Africa, we are also bringing passengers from West Africa to Nairobi and using Nairobi as a hub. We’re funnelling passengers into our other routes. At the moment we fly into Lagos and the aircraft sits there for five hours. So, we have decided that instead of it sitting there we can take a few passengers on to Cotonou [in Benin], get a few passengers there, bring them back to Lagos, then off to Nairobi. We are unable to make a Cotonou to Nairobi route profitable on its own, but combining it with a stop in Lagos makes it work.
M: Is Nairobi Africa’s most important hub?
TN: It is. Going north, south, east or west, Nairobi is very, very central. Also look at the things that support the hub itself. The financial services in Nairobi are very advanced for the region, as are its telecommunications. The labour market in Kenya is very strong. That makes the whole place viable.
M: What about Nairobi airport?
TN: Jomo Kenyatta airport is not good enough. It’s just run down. We have not used enough concrete of late but if the plans that are in place to improve it mature, we will move a step forward. If we don’t have it, we’re dead. The new terminal will bring more parking space for aircraft. The airport will have more space for passengers and the lounges will be increased and improved.
M: Who are your main competitors?
TN: Down south it’s South African Airways, around Africa it’s Ethiopian Airways, and to the rest of the world it’s Emirates. Emirates has very good connections to Dubai and from there they have a whole network. On the London route we don’t just have British Airways, but also those airlines that divert through Dubai. And now Virgin is coming with my good friend Richard [Branson]. The competition is strong.
M: Africa has a terrible reputation for air safety. How can it improve?
TN: A lot of it has to do with the fact that the regulatory authorities in Africa are not that developed. We have to try to make sure they enforce proper safety standards. Kenya Airways is a leader in terms of fighting to ensure safe operations across the continent. I sit on the board of IATA (International Air Transport Association) and I push the whole issue of safety in Africa. It is starting to happen. But safety is not just airlines. It is the airport authorities, governments, and equipment. Unfortunately we are not moving in sync. IATA is investing money and resources to try to get the ball rolling.
M: What effect would greater safety have on the industry?
TN: It would be a big boost for tourism. Tourism is a major, major economic benefit and tourism without safe skies doesn’t work. If you look at the accidents they are mostly in the West African and central African countries. Those countries are more preoccupied with other things. In east and southern Africa, where governments can be more preoccupied with positive things, air travel is relatively safe.
M: Where do you see Kenya Airways growing in the next few years?
TN: Our hope is to be able to connect each and every African city in the next few years. Someone can be in Cotonou and think: “How can I get to N’Djamena? I go via Khartoum”. That is our dream. At the moment we can link almost 40 cities. We will get there.
M: What does the future hold for you – would you consider politics?
TN: I am not interested in politics. I have been asked that question umpteen times and the answer is always no. I am interested in going back to my village, on the Kenyan border with Tanzania, and reading books. I would like to be a cattle breeder – that is my ancestral heritage.
M: What does the future hold for Africa?
TN: There is one message I would like to tell the rest of the world. That is: don’t discount Africa. The giant has woken up. You can feel it. I tell you because I travel in Africa a lot. You can see the pride in people’s eyes. I’ve just come from Mozambique. That country was ravaged by war for a long, long time. I met a few people and I was pleasantly surprised. They have decided that enough is enough. This generation of octogenarians who lead us are going. Either they are going through the ballot or through the Almighty saying “bye bye, time is up”. It is changing. Slavery woke Africa up to a certain extent. Colonialism woke it up to another extent. Corruption has woken us up to a certain extent, now poverty has woken us up further. We are awake now. It is coming. It is coming.