With African air traffic set to boom, Uganda is undertaking an ambitious $325 million overhaul of its main Entebbe International Airport, as well as developing an entirely new airport in its oil-producing region. Airport authority chief David Kakuba and his colleague John Kagoro discuss how the changes will help boost passenger numbers, cargo handling and revenue and how they are working to increase maximum comfort for visitors while maintaining some of the most rigorous safety and security standards in the region
IATA (International Air and Transport Association) statistics indicate that over the next 20 years aviation traffic in Africa is expected to grow by 5.7 per cent annually, creating an extra 6.8 million jobs and $72.5 billion in GDP. They also indicate that the growth will add 274 million passengers to the current 136 million by 2036. How is Uganda positioning itself in anticipation of these important developments?
David Kakuba: We are landlocked and therefore the government puts a lot of importance on the development of the aviation sector. It is in this context that the facilities we last improved during the preparation for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2007 have now been outgrown, and we are carrying out an ambitious project to upgrade and expand the international airports. This expansion will include the construction of an international cargo terminal, which is capable of handling 100,000 tonnes a year. It will have aprons, taxiways and we are going to expand the current airport passenger terminal. Arising out of all this, we expect our passenger traffic to move from 1.5 million to about 3 million, partly because the government has resolved to revive the national airline. Once that is done within the course of this year, we hope it will act as a catalyst for Entebbe International Airport to stop being a destination airport and become a connecting airport.
We have witnessed an increasing number of tourist visitors. The number of passengers and amount of activity we have now is what was envisaged for 2022, so we are very optimistic. Our revenues are going up and we are sure we’re on the right track.
On top of that, the government is developing an airport in the oil-producing region, which will initially be a special-purpose airport to fly in all the heavy equipment for the refinery. Once that is done, we as the CAA will provide professional advice on how to develop that airport. Once it is fully developed, it will be handed over under government rules to the Ugandan CAA. The upgrade and expansion of the international airport have been estimated to cost $325 million, divided into two phases. Phase I, which I have described, will cost $200 million and Phase II is $125 million.
How can international investors or companies come and be a part of the expanded Entebbe International Airport?
John Kagoro: We already have quite a number of investors involved. We have new fuel companies coming and we are positioning ourselves, together with the Free Zones Authority, as a welcoming place for new partners. We have marked up areas for aircraft maintenance centres, and there are opportunities there. We are also interested in increasing our non-aeronautical revenue, so we are remodelling the buildings to boost the visibility of retail and give travellers a better experience.
Combined with that is the fact that Uganda is part of the east African tourist circuit. We’re working together in the east African community so that tourists can come from, say, Kenya, and in one circuit can go to any place they want. In order to provide competitive services, we are helping the Ministry of Tourism and have been doing benchmarking with our partners in east Africa to see what tourists need in airports. We are also working with the National Roads Authority (UNRA) to ensure we are competitive.
DK: In an effort to make sure our passengers are not inconvenienced, we are working on ease of access to and from Kampala. The government has made an expressway whereby instead of it taking you about two hours because of a traffic jam, it will take passengers about 30 minutes, and there is a plan in the pipeline to build a light railway. There are many investment opportunities and we are encouraging PPPs. Immediately in the offering for PPPs is a multi-storey car park, which will also increase our non-aeronautical revenue. In modern aviation, it is recommended that you rely less on aeronautical revenue and increase non-aeronautical revenue. We are heading towards creating a modern airport city, where people can come with their families, enjoy and then go back to their homes.
JK: The other thing we are toying with is, for example, when you are in London and you go to Gatwick, you just go to Victoria Station and you check in. We are thinking about how we can create a system where you just check in, get on the bus or another form of transportation, and you are in the hands of the carrier.
You mentioned that you are going to be able to accommodate 100,000 tonnes of cargo…
JK: From around 53,000 tonnes per annum, we’ll be handling around 100,000. If you look at the data, even with that small number of 53,000, I think we are seventh in the whole of Africa. Phase II includes the expansion of the cargo terminal again and also another expansion of the passenger terminal.
When you compare yourself to other countries in the region, how do you view the advancements so far here in Uganda? Where would you like to see the country in terms of aviation facilities?
JK: Kenya has been a hub for a long time, and it made significant improvements to its airline. Rwanda’s entry into airlines is just recent and, for the time being, its airport’s capacity is quite limited – I know it is trying to build another one. Right now, as we stand, if a KLM plane is flying back to Europe, it would rather load all its passengers and fuel from Entebbe because the safety features favour it. Regarding our air navigation services: we have consistently shown that communications to aircraft crossing this country are 100 per cent available. We have radar, of course, from Spain, that covers the whole country, but we also want to increase the surveillance on lower flight levels. We try to implement all the core innovation requirements to provide top-notch safety and security.
UNRA needs to build 600km of roads to service the upcoming oil and gas sector. Can you explain a little bit more about how the aviation and the road network meet?
JK: In Entebbe you have the expressway that is being constructed from Kampala to Entebbe to make sure that Entebbe access is improved. In the Albertine area we have just a special purpose airport, although in the future because it is also near game parks, the Congo and Lake Albert, the roads there are improving as well. And all the areas within the game parks have good roads, so the synergy is there.
DK: What makes it more important to have synergy is that most tourists want to enjoy the countryside and the only way you do that is to go by road. Some of them maybe want to go by air first and from there proceed by road, so our efforts definitely complement each other.
JK: In addition, most of our exports are very food related. All these lakes have fish and if you can’t bring the fish to the airport, you’re in trouble.
How would you describe this moment in history for Uganda’s aviation sector?
DK: This is a very challenging and interesting period in the history of the development of our country. There are a lot more development opportunities, a lot more FDI coming in, and we are very optimistic that we are going to deliver our mandate to make sure that Ugandans get value from the aviation sector. On top of that, we are ensuring maximum safety and security standards so there are rarely airport incidents here. Our preoccupation is to focus on maximum safety and security. So we are developing the best ways to balance security and facilitation – facilitation in the sense that we want to reduce the time spent at the airport by our passengers as much as possible.
What do you have to say to potential tourists or investors from the UK?
DK: My message to the United Kingdom is that we have a very peaceful environment. We have very welcoming people, good facilities in terms of accommodation, including five-star hotels, and many tourism companies. Also, every day is summer. Visitors from the UK will not have language problems and will get a red-carpet welcome. We always keep in mind that passengers are the reason we exist. Therefore, I want to assure them that when they come, they will be treated to the maximum Ugandan traditional hospitality. Unlike some other countries where someone thinks that saying, “Hello, how are you?” is an inconvenience, here it is a must. When you get a guest, you might run short of hugging them, but you always say “you’re most welcome.” People should come and see what the power of Africa is.