From flowers to vaccines, Kenya Airways sees new opportunity
With passenger traffic in a slump, airlines are turning to freight to fill the gap -- and Kenya Airways spies an advantage in the market to deliver temperature-sensitive Covid vaccines: its expertise in flying fresh roses to Europe.
Jabs earmarked for Africa risk spoilage if not transported within precise temperature ranges from ground handling to shipment and delivery -- a logistical feat beyond many infrastructure-poor countries on the continent.
"That is the range we manage our fresh flowers, so it's very common and well known in our temperature control mechanisms," Peter Musola, Kenya Airways' general manager of cargo, told AFP in an interview this week.
"Around fresh, cool-chain management, I will tell you Nairobi is way ahead of so many countries."
The airline serves the major air hubs in Africa, has long-established routes to Europe and on Friday introduced a flight to Delhi, with an eye on business to ship Covishield, the Indian-made Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
It has converted passenger planes to cargo freighters and opened a pharmaceutical storage facility capable of storing tonnes of vaccines, as it courts the big business of bringing vaccines to more than a billion Africans.
The airline faces stiff competition from Ethiopian Airlines, the state-owned rival next door.
Africa's largest carrier, Ethiopian welcomed its first coronavirus vaccines this month. The shipment from China, destined for Chad, showcased the airline's ambition for contintent-wide distribution, and its own capability at cold-storage technology.
But the national carrier is keen to demonstrate it has an edge in transporting delicate cargo no matter where it is needed.
Every day, Kenya's coveted roses and carnations are cut and packed by hand, rushed by refrigerated truck 100 kilometres (60 miles) to Nairobi, placed aboard cargo planes and flown to Europe.
To keep the petals fresh and vibrant, the flowers must be kept between two and eight degrees Celsius (35-46 degrees Fahrenheit) the entire way.
Buyers use trackers inside shipments to ensure the "cold chain" remains unbroken from farms on the Equator to the market floor in Amsterdam.
Some coronavirus vaccines on the market, such as those produced by Pfizer and Moderna, must be kept in extreme freezers seldom available on the continent.
Something else will come
The vaccine-transport business would bring much-needed revenue to the struggling airline.
The government has quietly given the airline $91 million (75 million euros) to cover losses, after a year in which the firm had to axe hundreds of jobs, Business Daily reported this week.
Musola said the 50-tonne freighter had interested the market.
Musola said a "world-class" cold-storage facility opened in September can safely turnover 300 tonnes of vaccines and other pharmaceutical products every six hours. It includes a deep freezer capable of keeping Moderna's vaccine below minus 20 C.
The airline sees a return on investment beyond coronavirus in serving Africa with other much-needed medical supplies.
"We believe even after Covid, something else will come, so we want to position ourselves for a sustainable solution to the industry," he said.