History was in the air as a Uganda Airlines flight took off from Entebbe on October 7 to arrive in Mumbai five and a half hours later, making it the first direct connection between India and the East African country in over 50 years. Uganda Airlines will fly this route thrice weekly.

Although annual passenger traffic on the India-Uganda route is below one lakh, the new direct service assumes importance given the rising air connectivity between India and the African continent post the pandemic. Indians now have direct flights to nine African destinations — the latest additions being Entebbe and Lagos in Nigeria in 2023.

Flights between Chennai and Reunion island were suspended in April as Air Austral was unable to secure permissions. On the other hand, Indian airlines have stepped up connections to Africa. Vistara began flying between Mumbai and Mauritius in March, while IndiGo started its Mumbai-Nairobi service in August, making it the third airline on this route after Air India and Kenya Airways. Egypt Air, too, began a Cairo-Delhi flight in August.

(Air India, IndiGo, and Vistara did not respond to emailed queries.)

The increased air connectivity comes even as Indo-African trade grew by 9.26 per cent in FY 2023, nearing $100 billion. At a CII-Exim Bank conclave in June in New Delhi, Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal expressed confidence in doubling the trade volume to $200 billion by 2030. The inclusion of the African Union in the G-20 grouping at the recent New Delhi summit also adds heft to the strengthening Indo-African ties. The new air services are expected to further boost trade.

Two-way load

“We have an opportunity to carry 18 tonnes of cargo on each flight between Entebbe and Mumbai. On the first flight we were able to carry five tonnes from Mumbai, which was a mix of garments, pharmaceuticals and other products,” said Adedayo Olawuyi, Uganda Airlines’ chief commercial officer.

Currently, the two-way trade between the two countries is imbalanced in favour of India. Uganda Airlines hopes its flight will open up more cargo opportunities and cut transit time. “Uganda is a big producer of coffee, fruits and avocados. We would like to bring our agricultural products to India. We also connect to 11 destinations in Africa and hope to achieve 70-75 per cent freight loads in six months,” Olawuyi added.

The East African country is pushing for greater access to India and seeking revisions in trade and air service agreements. This would allow it to export fresh fruits and connect to more destinations in India. Besides Mumbai, Uganda Airlines is keen to start services to Chennai and Delhi as well. 

“We should be able to carry cargo from both sides, so that we don’t fly with an empty belly space from Uganda,” said General Edward Katumba-Wamala, the Ugandan minister of works and transport, at the inaugural flight in Mumbai. 

Established African airlines such as Air Mauritius are ramping up capacity on their India routes on the back of cargo growth. “Our cargo volume between India and Africa has increased by 10-15 per cent compared to the pre-pandemic period,” said Venkatesh Iyer, vice-president (commercial), Sharaf Cargo Private Ltd, general sales agent for Air Mauritius.

The airline operates six weekly flights to Mumbai and will add a third weekly service between Mauritius and Delhi in the winter schedule. 

“The main drivers for growth is the increase in Indian exports due to competitive pricing and high-quality pharmaceuticals. There has also been an increase in auto exports from India. For us, South Africa is one of the biggest cargo markets in Africa,” Iyer said.

Ethiopian Airlines and Egypt Air operate both passenger and freighter flights to India. West Asian airlines also carry substantial cargo between India and Africa.

“South Asia is one of the regions with growing cargo demand along with the Far East, the Middle East, and North America. As the leading air cargo service provider in Africa, Ethiopian Airlines is aggressively investing in the development of pharmaceutical and e-commerce cargo to service the continent and beyond,” Africa’s largest airline stated.

“India’s capacity to serve as a manufacturing hub and the government’s measures to promote exports are some of the main encouraging factors,” it added.

Exim partners

Trade between India and Africa grew from $68.6 billion in 2011-12 to $89.6 billion in 2021-22, according to a CII research report in 2022.

India’s five leading export destinations in Africa are South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Togo, and Kenya, the report said. Its top five import partners from Africa are South Africa, Nigeria, Guinea, Egypt and Angola. 

“India is better positioned to grow its trade with Africa — partly because its exports are more suited to lower income markets and because of the strong ethnic ties to a lot of countries on the continent. Additional belly capacity will provide a low-cost opportunity for exporters to grow the market and may well pave the way for increased freighter operations in the future,” said Frederic Horst, managing director of Australia-based logistics consultancy Trade and Transport Group.