Taking Flight in Africa: Air Travel, Soft Power, and Development

A strange sense of déjà vu hit me as I lugged my too-heavy carry-ons through Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta Airport just before 6:00 a.m. the other day.

Through bleary, sleep-deprived eyes, I was suddenly seized with the sensation that instead of East Africa, I was in Bangkok circa 1990, All of the hallmarks of that old Southeast Asia travel hub were in evidence: endless, doughty, glass-enclosed duty free shops flogging Timex watches and Remington shavers, miniature TVs and music players of all descriptions, along with such staples as international power adapters to choice-deprived consumers. It was old Bangkok without the airport massages, and at least at this hour, without the bustle.

I had flown in on a 1,800-mile red-eye from Johannesburg, which I had reached in turn after a 100-minute flight from Windhoek, Namibia. The Nairobi-bound Kenya Airways flight had been absolutely packed and stifling. Its "connecting" passengers were flying onward to places like Kinshasa and Brazzaville, Abidjan and Dakar. A few, like me, had another 3,300 miles ahead of them on the Kenya Airways connection to Monrovia, Liberia, via the Ghanaian capital, Accra. If you imagine flying from Miami to Los Angeles via Boston, you'll just about have the idea.

Travel in Africa like this used to be a commonplace for me, but I have spent most of my time in the last decade-plus living and working in East Asia. As can often be the case, returning somewhere after a long time away affords a new perspective; fresh eyes and all that. What struck me first on this particular leg of a month-long itinerary in Africa was the background of my fellow passengers. The Westerners, who accounted for maybe 20 percent of them, seemed divided into two broad categories. The first incarnate a new breed of affluent-looking, backpack-carrying tourists who have little in common with the backpackers of yore. Here we're talking about the people who go on expensive safaris in east and southern Africa and come dressed in the latest L.L. Bean or Patagonia finery. The second consist of NGO workers and international aid officials on a mission, typically well-meaning, almost always personally lucrative, and only occasionally effective, to somehow help Africa.

The Africans on these flights were harder for me to peg. On this day, I estimated them to number about 60 percent of the passengers. There was the prosperous-looking Ghanaian father of energetic young twin sons who bore more than a passing resemblance to the gospel-pop singer Kirk Franklin. There was the big and matronly woman from Zambia who said her final destination was Cardiff. There were the three wiry and animated young men who I somehow imagined to be traveling football (soccer) players. There was the Kenyan seated next to me, dressed very casually in shorts, a t-shirt, and slip-ons, who I had mis-pegged altogether. It turns out he was an official of the International Rescue Committee on his way to Liberia to audit the group's operations there.

The remainder of the passengers were Asian, a catch-all group that in Africa would have once meant people from the Indian Subcontinent. Indians, particularly Muslims from Mumbai, and Pakistanis were certainly well-represented, but so were Asians of a sort one once saw infrequently in Africa: Chinese, who have migrated to the continent in steadily rising numbers in the last decade. Right after boarding, my Kenyan neighbor and I were asked to exchange seats with a brother and sister from Guangdong Province because the airline felt their English wasn't good enough to allow them to occupy the emergency exit row. Minutes later, a couple of young men who spoke in a Beijing burr briefly tried to move me out of my seat, mistakenly believing it was theirs. I resisted the strong urge to converse with them in Chinese, the better to hear them speak unguardedly about the situation, but they moved along quickly.

Unlike the Westerners on my flights, the Chinese almost all appear to be in Africa for business, which is fitting, because as much can be said about official China's engagement with the continent as a whole: it's all business. But that is not what this column is about. Rather, I want to focus on the airline industry as a way of thinking anew about Africa -- shifting the old American/Western paradigm away from its focus on a perceived helpless sick man to what is fast becoming a booming human landscape.

There are many ways to express this. Take, for example, a recent analysis by The Economist, which found that in the first decade of this century six of the world's ten fastest growing economies were in Sub-Saharan Africa. Economists expect these trends to deepen, with some predicting 7 percent average growth for the continent over the next 20 years, which is more even than what is projected for China.

One would never know this from reading America's mainstream media, which provides almost no African business coverage and seems resolutely stuck on stories like Somalia, rape in Congo and Sudan (which until recently meant Darfur), all important enough to be sure, but not so important as to justify obscuring the much bigger picture of growth, regional integration and accelerating connection with the global economy.

While the United States maintains its traditional focus on Africa as basket case, China, for one, heartily embraces the continent. This is not because of any benevolent mission, much less because of any "Yellow Man's Burden." Many focus on China's interest in Africa's immense storehouse of natural resources. This is important, to be sure, but it is far from the entire picture. China has returned to the continent big time in equal measure because it sees Africa, whose population will double by mid-century, as the future. Yes, you got that right. Africa and its growing markets, its booming middle classes, its massive need for new infrastructure, and its ability to sustain rapid growth, quite unlike the indebted and aging West, is the future.

Pursuing its competitive advantage, which stems from its own huge build-out, China has focused heavily on infrastructure. Chinese companies are building roads and ports, stadiums and new government ministries, bridges and new power stations here at a historic clip. Along the way, the have also built any number of new African airports. On this trip alone I have taken off from glistening new Chinese-built structures in Addis Ababa and Maputo. What my travel tells me, though, is that even more than these "hard" assets, Africa is in need of vastly greater "soft" connectivity.

Airports are great, but on a continent where people fly, as some of my seat-mates on this itinerary have, from Washington to Addis Ababa in order to get to Lagos, what is needed most are flights -- many more flights -- both between the U.S. and Africa (there are currently precious few), and between African countries themselves. Africa is woefully under-endowed in international air routes and connections, and for a United States that is unable to compete with China in bridge and tunnel construction, this pitches to an American strength. Boeing, remember, is the country's largest exporter.

Beyond good business, connecting the United States to Africa with more robust air networks is a smart way of enhancing American soft power on the continent, linking the continent's rising middle classes with the United States, and making it easier for American business people, and not just aid workers, to reach new markets.

The United States can go even further by working creatively with Africa to rebuild its own continental air networks and reverse the costly Balkanization of African airlines that began with the demise of the regional carrier, Air Afrique, in the 1990s. This left the continent served by a bunch of small and undercapitalized national carriers. This reintegration has begun to take place in a modest way with the entry of Ethiopian, one of Africa's strongest airlines in the Star Alliance. The United States can do much more to promote this process if it is boldly imaginative, and like China learns to see Africa as a great business opportunity. The truth, though, is that if America does not come to play this role someone else will.