Air cargo down in 2020 as COVID-19 takes toll

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COVID-19 did not only impede human travel by air, but for Nigeria, the import and export of cargo (perishable and non-perishable products) via air also declined when volumes for 2020 were compared with those of 2019.

BusinessDay findings from Nigerian Aviation Handling Company (NAHCO) and Skyway Aviation Handling Company (SAHCO), which handle almost 95 percent of all export and import cargoes going through Nigerian airports, show volumes of cargo import handled by both firms dropped 16 percent from 119,273,388.07kg in 2019 to 100,424,907.22 in 2020. On the other hand, cargo exports fell 10 percent from 23,158,095kg in 2019 to 20,903,244 in 2020. Averaging, both imports and exports show a 13-percent decline in airfreight.

Basil Agboarumi, managing director/CEO of SAHCO plc, told BusinessDay that when the Federal Government shut down the airspace in March 2020, cargo flights did not operate for some weeks and there were uncertainties, with no one sure when things would get back to normal.

Agboarumi explained that even after the government allowed cargo flights into the country, only specific items were allowed to be brought in, as most items imported for the period of five months the airspace was shut down were mostly COVID-19 related materials.

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“People were not importing because there was no selling or buying, although after a while, food items were being imported,” he said. However, when the airspace was gradually opening, another snag was foreign exchange. When people managed to get foreign exchange, they had to draw a scale of preference.

“For us as an organisation, we had challenges of bringing in our equipment as a result of foreign exchange challenges,” he said.

According to Seyi Adewale, CEO, Mainstream Cargo Limited, even though Nigeria imported a lot of COVID-19 materials during the lockdown, it did not really affect the volumes of import because those materials did not have weight since the handling companies measure ‘scale weight’ and not ‘dimensional weight’.

“During pre-COVID period, imported goods came from everywhere. During COVID, airlines that carry heavy equipment and machinery stopped flights into Nigeria, for instance, Cargolux. For about one month, there were no commercial cargo flights into Nigeria as the air embargo was not clear on whether cargo flights were exempted,” Adewale said.

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He however noted that since January 2021, cargo export had significantly increased.

Data from Nigerian Aviation Handling Company (NAHCO Aviance) show cargo imports dropped 20 percent to 41,739,497kg in 2020 from 52,448,777kg in 2019. Exports through the cargo house also fell by 21 percent in 2020 from 12,856,990 in 2019 to 10,032,303 in 2020.

For SAHCO, air cargo imports dropped 12 percent to 58,685,410.22kg in 2020 from 66,824,611.07kg in 2019. On the other hand, exports increased marginally by 5 percent in 2020 from 10,301,105kg in 2019 to 10,870,941kg in 2020.

Agboarumi noted that SAHCO’s marginal increase in export was because some people realised that one of the easiest ways to get foreign exchange was through exportation, and people were beginning to think out of the box, packaging and sending products globally accepted to Europe and other parts of the world.

“For us as a company, we had to do a lot of investments in our section to facilitate exports. We are buying facilities to facilitate exports and almost all airlines take export products from our warehouse. We have invested in cold rooms, freezers and in training of our staff,” he said.

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He listed some of the items exported out of Nigeria to include ginger, cocoa butter, rubber, palm kernel oil, textiles, garments, gallstone, sesame seed, garlics, yam tubers, charcoal, cotton, cassava flour, cashew nuts, honey, shrimps, live snail, chili pepper, fruit juice, poultry, cosmetics and soap, wigs and hair attachments, among others.

For Adewale, the UK remains Nigeria’s primary destination of foodstuff followed by Germany and USA, as German authorities are beginning to place strict restrictions on foodstuff items from Nigeria.

“We see an increase in perishables such as vegetables; although this could be categorised under foodstuff. Nigeria is already building big business around the export market. For example, three consolidators in Nigeria already move approximately 80 tons of foodstuffs per week from Nigeria,” he said

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