Djibouti: The Gateway to Africa?

Djibouti: The Gateway to Africa?

Djibouti may be small-fewer than one million people-but the Horn of Africa country has plans to develop itself into a sea-air cargo hub for landlocked countries in the region, such as neighboring Ethiopia.

“We can connect the Far East to Africa and the rest of the world,”Moussa Houssein Doualeh, cargo manager at Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport.”This is our dream.”

The key to the plan is exploiting Djibouti’s fortunate location and the rising use of mixed-mode transportation of cargo. Air Cargo is much faster than sea, but it is correspondingly more expensive. With manufacturer’s eager to cut costs during the global recession, they have discovered increasingly sophisticated techniques for sending cargo either in waves of air first than sea or mixing it so that it goes only part of the way by sea and then the rest by air. The solution is rapidly gaining advocates and that makes places with both good sea and air access suddenly very useful.

Djibouti sits at the mouth of the Red Sea, with approximately 65% of the world’s commercial shipping fleet using its territorial waters. This makes its sea ports a vital outlet for regional transshipment .With the growing use of air as part of that, the airport is seeing some growth ,but wants to develop that far more.

“Sea-air is our target,” said Doualeh.”We are already working on ensuring incoming transshipment between the seaports to the airport take [fewer] than 48 hours, but we need some professional logistics people to help us.”

The airport s air cargo operations are small -only 3,000 tons per year -but it has some heavy hitters flying freighters into it: Etihad and Emirates .Etihad flies in twice a week with an A330 for both Djibouti and Somalia, while Emirates flies a 777 every Saturday.

The next big operator will be Ethiopian Airlines, which is already planning on exploiting the sea-air model through Djibouti.

“Everything going to Ethiopia comes through Djibouti,” said Doualeh.”Eighty million people are being fed by road .We are a very small country, but our seaport is one of the best in the region. We are trying to save time for the shippers, the transporters and the customers. We are working with seaport and see how we can bring things along with this sea and air movement.”

In April last year, Ethiopian Airlines signed a memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the airport to do exactly that.

“As the largest air cargo service provider in Africa, we are a serious player in moving trade, commerce and investment, which are the engines of fast economic development in the continent,” said Tewolde Gebremariam, CEO of Ethiopian, in a statement at the time. “The cooperation framework with our long-time partner, Djibouti Airport, will enable us to offer a new menu of choice, sea-air multimodal transport services, to our shippers, forwarders, and logistics providers in Africa.”

To encourage more airlines to do the same, the Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority has plans for a US$ 5.88 billion investment to expand connections between the airport and the Doraleh container Terminal ,which itself will have its capacity boosted up to three million containers per year by 2015 ,double its current capability.

Already the fifth-largest container port in Africa by capacity, this expansion would make it the largest on the continent, leapfrogging Port Said and Damietta in Egypt, Tangiers in Morocco and Durban in South Africa, which is already moving forward its own ambitious sea-air projects.

On top of that development, Aboubaker Omar Hadi, chairman of the Djibouti Ports & Free Zones Authority, says the country will start building a new airport later this year, to open in 2016.

“The airport will be 25km from our capital …….. and have a state-of-the-art air cargo village to prepare ourselves for the expected increased demand.

“We need to develop the sea-air cargo business to serve landlocked east African countries and far away West African countries .These currently have to endure unreasonable transit times,” he explained.” This has been handicapping the business community for many years and the development of sea-air cargo services, especially for high -value goods, will be a great solution.”

Currently, a container shipped from Shanghai to Abuja, Nigeria, can take up to three months while sea-air option trans-shipped in Djibouti takes a maximum of 18 days. With the recent advances in cool-chain containers, this also allows for certain perishables-fresh food-to be sent this way.

“Trade to and from African countries is increasingly rapidly,” added Hadi.”All [those] involved in air cargo logistics should take advantage of this untouched, yet vast, potential for growth.”

However, Djibouti Airports cargo facilities “do not answer all the requirements”, Doualeh admits and it only has one runway, which it shares with the nearby US Military base. The new airport will certainly help, but in the meantime a 4,000 sqft warehouse with cold-storage capabilities will open later this year.

Nonetheless, Doualeh is confident that businesses will soon see the cost advantage of flying into Djibouti instead of Dubai, only a short-haul flight away. In the mean time, he is still looking for companies willing to make his dream a reality.

Anthony A Juma is the Editor and Managing Director at Wings Over Africa Safaris Limited. This is a Safari Holiday Company that specializes on Exotic Destinations in Africa. The website has guided thousands of travelers to achieve their dream holiday. For more information and guidance, visit the site at