Insights from the Great Enabler: Aerospace in Africa

Airbus gathered African government officials, policymakers, business leaders, entrepreneurs, intergovernmental bodies and multilateral development organizations in Toulouse, France, on the 30th of October 2018 for the launch of its special white paper entitled “The Great Enabler: Aerospace in Africa”. The report attracted deserving media mentions and trended within the circle of space industry professionals on Linkedin and Twitter.

I was invited to Toulouse by Airbus for the launch of the White Paper. I could not make it to Toulouse; thanks to the inclusive visa policy of the French government. I was glued to my Twitter and Linkedin feed on the said date following the event in real time. Today, I bring you concise insights from the 80-page report.

The research included 30 in-depth interviews of stakeholders and leveraged existing primary data to underscore the important role aerospace technologies play in Africa’s socio-economic development. The report makes a research-based case for opportunities for growth in the aerospace industry in Africa highlighting key focus areas: government policy, manufacturing and industrialisation, civil aviation, agriculture, healthcare and humanitarian assistance.

Why Africa?

The following statements on Airbus’s website explain the company’s relationship with the region and the Middle East.

“For more than four decades, Airbus commercial airliners, helicopters, military aircraft and satellites have flown the skies of Africa and the Middle East. From Dubai to Cape Town, Airbus’ activity reflects the company’s slogan: “We make it fly.”

Airbus has a significant presence throughout the region, employing more than 3,100 people across Morocco, Tunisia, South Africa, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman.

“Airbus’ products and services are widely recognized as being well-suited to Africa and the Middle East, yet the company’s commitment to the region goes beyond selling: Airbus pursues humanitarian objectives and also provides training and support by building local entities, creating jobs and ultimately contributing to the economic development of the region. In addition, Airbus identifies knowledge, skills, talent and capacities that can be developed to address global talent shortages.”

The time is now for the growth of the aerospace industry in Africa.

“Building a robust commercial aerospace industry in Africa is no longer a question of if but how.” This strong opening sentence strokes one’s mind about the full potential of aerospace technology for the continent. The missing dot is how can Africa competitively join the aerospace industry value chain.

According to Bruno Gutierres, Head of Airbus BizLab, “what many African ecosystems lack in means is compensated by ambition, motivation and creativity to apply the existing resources efficiently. Moreover, the technology leapfrog in the communication sector straight to mobile demonstrates an opportunity. Africa has the potential to leapfrog into the world of digitization of the aerospace industry.”

Africa has a competitive advantage in the global aerospace industry

“On manufacturing and industrialization, many African countries are final consumers in the global aerospace value chain. Joining the rank of producers in this value chain is challenging for many but not impossible. The examples of Africa’s current leaders in aerospace – South Africa, Tunisia and Morocco – demonstrate the complexities but also the opportunities for African countries to develop aerospace manufacturing and industrialization capacity. Key among these opportunities is Africa’s potential demographic dividend, which will be achieved by investing in its youthful and increasingly techno-savvy population.”

Africa’s competitive advantage as relates to the global market is the continent’s demography dividend. The region, in the past two decades,  has leapfrogged its financial technology, communication and mobile sectors while exploiting the advantages of its demographic dividends. Researchers and development experts generally agree that the passport to Africa’s economic growth is human capital. Africa’s economic prosperity or social instability in all sectors largely depends on what becomes of its youths. The aerospace sector is not an exception. In fact, a high-skilled technical sector such as aerospace requires growing a  talent pipeline to thrive.

There are challenges to Africa’s competitive advantage

There is a shortage of skilled labour in the aerospace sector in Africa.

“When it comes to education, there is no shortage of a critical mass of labour in Africa; rather, there is a shortage of a critical mass of highly skilled labour required to be competitive in the aerospace sector”, According to the White Paper, “there is a fundamental skills mismatch between African graduates and jobs in a high-skilled technical sector like aerospace.” The cause is not far-fetched. “Less than 25% of students who graduate from African universities have degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)”. There is a need for the improvement of both institutions and curriculum in Africa’s education sector. A lot has been said about reforming the education system in most African nations, but little to nothing has been done in reality.

The challenge of brain drain found its way in the aerospace industry just as many other technical industries in Africa. Anyway, one cannot expect less of its effect in the aerospace industry in Africa with limited resources, lack of development capacity and a near absence of a thriving private sector.

The White Paper highlights the challenge posed by the lack of critical infrastructure to drive such a technical sector as aerospace. “Physical infrastructure – including roads, airports, electrical grids and telecommunication networks – forms the backbone of commerce and, by extension, competitiveness. It requires a great deal of technical expertise and public funding in its own right. Experts believe African countries need to greatly accelerate their investments in infrastructure development. The latest estimate from the African Development Bank suggests that Africa’s infrastructure needs amount to $130–170 billion a year, with a financing gap in the range of $68–$108 billion”. According to feedback from stakeholders interviewed for the report, playing the African leapfrog narrative may have painted a picture that seems to soften the effect of the infrastructural deficits in the region. In essence, the leapfrogging narrative may undermine the call for rapid infrastructural development and quality education.

There are few emerging success stories of the aerospace sector in Africa.

The White Paper highlighted instances of deliberate policy strategies and economic drive by a few Africa nations who are making progress in the aerospace industry. “The fact of the matter is that some governments in Africa have created highly competitive aerospace clusters by articulating industrialization policies, making deliberate investments in technical education, and creating an environment attractive to entrepreneurs and investors alike. The aerospace sector has enjoyed notable growth and stability in South Africa, Morocco and Tunisia, where national governments had clear strategic visions and policies for the development of the sector at large.”

Other countries that have adopted strategies to enable the development of aerospace include Ethiopia and Cote d’Ivoire. According to the report, “Ethiopian Airlines, whose global expansion has driven the wider economic development policy agenda in Ethiopia, entered into an agreement with South Africa’s Aerosud to establish a joint-venture – an aerospace manufacturing company that plans to manufacture and supply various aircraft parts to OEMs.”

Côte d’Ivoire’s 2012 Investment Code is a robust economic development policy model that has been attributed to driving foreign investment to the country and increasing interest in its aerospace sector.

Is Nigeria’s aerospace sector progressive?

The White Paper did not highlight any progress in Nigeria’s emerging aerospace industry which is adjudged to be close to South Africa. This leaves a lot to be desired in analyzing Nigeria’s government-dominated aerospace sector and lack of strategic policy model for industrial scale. Nigeria may have successfully launched several satellites into orbit, however little progress has been made in creating an enabling environment for a thriving aerospace industry which includes aviation, OEMs, research and development, talent development, startup cluster and strategic policies.

You can download the comprehensive White Paper from the Airbus website. I will publish more insights from the report for space enthusiasts who may not have the time to analyze the 80-page masterpiece.