Ethiopian Airlines - a True Pride of Africa

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The business model of Ethiopian Airlines is outstanding enough to be emulated by all African enterprises, argues Abdul Mohammed, chief of staff for the African Union High Level Implementation Panel on Sudan.

Many of us fly to Addis Abeba on Ethiopian Airlines and so, in the most practical sense, our mere presence in the political capital of Africa is a tribute to the carrier that brought us safely to this country. We choose Ethiopian because it is the airline that connects the continent.

And we are here in Addis Abeba because it is the diplomatic capital of the continent - the seat of the African Union (AU) - and the preferred destination for so many of us who organise conferences, political gatherings or negotiations to end conflicts on the continent. Increasingly, Addis Abeba is a destination for businesses from around the world. One of the reasons why it has maintained its standing is because Ethiopian flies to every corner of the continent, and beyond.

Ethiopian Airlines is a premier African institution. It has every reason to be proud of itself for competing globally.

It was founded 65 years ago and has outlived its mentor, TransWorld Airlines. Indeed, while airlines around the world have staggered from one financial crisis to the next, Ethiopian has maintained a superb credit rating.

The Airline was started with a Pan-African vision of connecting the newly-independent countries of the continent. It grew as Africa itself grew, politically and economically. While most other airlines focused on linking African countries to their former colonial capitals, Ethiopian crisscrossed the continent, connecting Anglophone, Francophone, Arabophone and Lusophone countries, breaking down those artificial boundaries inherited from the colonial era.

Ethiopian developed an ethos of self-reliance, training its own pilots, technicians and crew, and also providing a centre of excellence where airline professionals from across Africa could come and gain the skills and expertise they needed. The management refused to take the existing industry models at face value and instead developed their own analysis of how best to build a truly outstanding airline.

For many years, Ethiopian refused offers of partnership from bigger airlines, confident that its own business model would outstrip that of its rivals, and it should only negotiate with other airlines on equal terms.

The only problem is that the Airline has now expanded so fast that it needs to hire pilots and crew from elsewhere. Ethiopian is becoming a truly Pan-African airline. Such a robust expansion must take care to guard the provision of sustained, quality services in all respects.

By a coincidence of history, Ethiopia Airlines and the Organisation of African Union (OAU) have similar life stories. The two institutions were born during Africa's independence era. Both, from their inception, embarked upon bringing Africa and Africans together: physically and politically. Both were driven by a vision of a united continent.

For Ethiopian, the independence of African countries meant opportunities for expanding its network, culminating in the opening up of routes to all parts of Africa. For the OAU, the total liberation of Africa was a prerequisite for the project of bringing Africa together in a more perfect union. Today, the African Union - a successor of the OAU - has the theme of African renaissance as an accelerator of African unity.

Ethiopian is both a beneficiary and a catalyst to that renaissance: the continent's economic rise, closely associated with its economic integration, brings more business to Africa's most successful airline. At a time when Africa is rising from the ashes and claiming its rightful place, Ethiopian Airlines and the AU are both symbols of the continent's hope for a prosperous and united future.

During the years of recession, austerity and political turmoil, the Airline maintained its corporate identity. It invested in its human resources and developed a strong bond of loyalty among its staff.

It has the highest levels of professionalism and an enviable work ethic. Its story is one of how investment in building an institution pays off handsomely over the long-term.

And, as Africa has begun to rise economically, with expanding economies, increasing intra-African trade and a fast expanding middle class, Ethiopia found itself positioned to take advantage of this market, and in turn to contribute to Africa's renaissance.

Ethiopian Airlines anticipated the surge of the emerging economies, not just in Africa, but also in Asia and Latin America, and is now riding that wave. I believe it is one of the first airlines to connect countries around the equator, from Brazil, through Africa, to South and East Asia. In Brazil - the country with the second largest number of citizens of African descent after Nigeria - it is a symbol of the rise of the global South.

In connecting Africa to India and China, Ethiopian is an exemplar of South-South cooperation. For Africans, the Airline has become more than a practical asset that can transport them around the continent reliably and safely. It is also an emblem, an institution in which we can take pride and an example to emulate.

The success story of Ethiopian Airlines confounds those who question Africa's ability to run modern institutions efficiently, profitably and sustainably. Its record demonstrates how Africa can engage and succeed in a globally-competitive and capital-intensive industry.

Developing countries need a focus for their energy and inspiration. In Ethiopia, we have seen how the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) serves not just as a project that will generate power and transform the economic potential of the country, but also a focal point for the will of the people to overcome their poverty and grasp a better future.

Ethiopian Airlines is more than a business: it is also an emblem of what is possible; a globally competitive commercial enterprise that was created and has grown in Africa, combining continuity and innovation in an extraordinarily successful mix.

Africa, as a whole, also needs projects that can symbolise the potential of the 54 diverse but connected countries on the continent. As Ethiopian was founded in the dawn of decolonisation and has prospered into the modern-day African renaissance, it helped incubate Africa's integration and continues to serve as the very arteries of trade and communications across our continent.

It has done so with professionalism and panache, with creativity and attention to making sure the managerial and financial fundamentals are in place. It has done so with meticulous attention to detail and with a long-term vision for what an airline can achieve, and what Africa can achieve. Ethiopian is a model for us all.

Ethiopians have every reason to be proud of their national carrier. But, across the continent and beyond, Africans are also proud of their continental airline.

Ethiopian Airlines is truly an African flag carrier, a testament to the potential of Pan Africanism. I am confident that as Africa continues to rise over the next 50 years, Ethiopian Airlines will continue to expand, prosper and contribute to leading the way. (Addis Fortune)