Africa: Is Aviation Keeping Pace With Population Growth?

Welcome back to our African Aviation series. In the first blog post of this series, we explored the fortunes of two legacy airlines in the continent, Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways. Now, we dive into the challenges faced by African aviation to meet the demands of its projected population growth over the next twenty-five years.

Some of the world’s largest cities of the future are in Africa. Today, there are four urban agglomerations in the continent – Cairo, Lagos, Kinshasa and Johannesburg - all with over 10 million inhabitants. A further two are expected to see strong growth in the next two decades; Luanda in Angola and Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania.

Africa blog map 1

Source: OAG, citypopulation.de

Each of these are projected to grow significantly in the next twenty-five years, with their populations expected to potentially double over that timescale. The challenge for aviation in Africa, and specifically for those people who live and relocate to these large urban areas, is to keep pace with growth.

Looking at annual capacity vs population for these areas (in 2023) shows that only Cairo and Johannesburg have air service that is anywhere close to matching the size of the population:

Kinshasa is particularly underserved with airline capacity just equivalent to 5% of the urban area population. For Luanda capacity is just equal to 17% of the population, whilst Lagos and Dar Es Salaam are closer to a third.

By comparison, other global urban areas with populations similar to those projected for these African cities demonstrate a much closer relationship - where capacity often exceeds the current population size, as seen in Delhi, Jakarta and Manila. Therefore, if aviation in Africa is to keep up and offer the same opportunities to the local populations in the urban areas it serves, significant growth is necessary in the next two decades. 

Growth lagging in all areas, except the very North and South

Looking at country level now, we compare the population for Africa’s Top 20 largest countries with the total seat capacity of the air service market operating to and from those countries.

For some of Africa’s largest countries, the ratio of seats to people is very low, such as Nigeria where there is air capacity for just 12% of the population, and in Tanzania where the ratio is 18%.

However, in some markets the ratio is much higher, with the exception of South Africa, these are largely concentrated around North Africa – where Egypt has air service capacity at 50% of the population level, and Morocco where annual seats equate to 90% of the population. 

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Where is there room to grow?

Much has been written over the years about the lack of air connectivity within Africa.  For many travelling around the continent, it can be easier (incredibly) to transit over a hub in the Middle East to reach another destination in Africa. Many intra-African destinations are either not served, or massively underserved, for a myriad of historic reasons, relating to a lack of liberalisation, right sizing of aircraft and having competitive air fares.

Looking at the network from Cairo at one end of the continent to Johannesburg at the southern end shows that both of these airports offer reasonably good connectivity to the rest of Africa, with some exceptions – little or no service into Central Africa and similarly parts of North Africa.  There are 42 international routes from Johannesburg to other parts of Africa, and 35 from Cairo. 

Source: OAG

Compare this to the networks offered from the other large urban cities we considered earlier and it’s evident there is a much lower rate of East to West connectivity and vice versa than North to South. Lagos has 20 international services to other points in Africa whilst Luanda has just 13. Kinshasa has just one more, with 14 international services to the rest of Africa, and Dar Es Salaam has 15.

Source: OAG

When we consider that there are 54 countries in the African continent, this highlights the scale of the challenge for growth in future. If every African country had connections to each other country in the continent, this would total a potential 1,596 routes operating between the largest airport in each country. Today there are just 547 routes operating between African countries, just 34% of the total potential that could operate.

Whilst there is undoubtedly progress - back in 2022, this figure was just 30% - if aviation growth is to keep up with population growth, a much more concerted effort to improve connectivity across the continent will be required. In the next blog of this series, we consider why African aviation has been held back for so long, and how it might begin to realise its potential. 

Catch-up with the series: