Gliding Over the Continent Who is the aviation giant of Africa?

Africa is generally referred to as a continent with untapped aviation potential. The performance of its aviation industry is still lagging behind in comparison with those of other continents. This is probably because many African countries still grapple with issues related to security, poor infrastructure and bad policies. In spite of these challenges, some African countries have taken daunting steps and implemented innovative strategies to get their aviation systems out of the woods and well positioned to compete globally. In this article, we compare the top 6 African countries based on country population and air passenger traffic. We juxtapose these against each country’s wealth (GDP) and international tourist arrival.


Top ten African countries by passenger traffic population and their corresponding population
Chart A: Top ten African countries by passengers traffic population and their corresponding population

Open Data Research Centre, SMC

Kenya - Land of the Magical

YearPopulationAir PassengersGDP (USD Million)Real GDP Growth (% growth)International Tourists ArrivalUnemployment Rate
Sources: World Bank Open Data, Euromonitor International,, IndexMundi

Kenya is an East African equatorial nation. It is the 7th most populous African country with a total number of 45,545,980 inhabitants in 2015. According to World Bank data (2015), Kenya is the 8th largest economy in Africa and 71st in the world by gross domestic product (GDP). Its GDP in 2015 was $63,397.90 billion with a 5.3% increase from 2014. On the average, the Kenyan economy is growing but it is far behind the other top African countries. Although the country is not rich, it has displayed a high level of prudence by investing its limited resources on the development of its natural endowments to serve as a magnetic pull for tourists.

Tourism is Kenya’s cash cow and the country’s second-largest source of revenue after agriculture. Kenya’s tourism has three major product lines: wildlife safari, coastal tourism, and business and conference travel.

Mount Kenya (Source:

Kenya wildlife safari is dependent on natural and wildlife assets. Kenya coastal tourism which is well appreciated by European tourists is dependent on large coastal resorts such as Mombasa resort, Lake Naivasha etc. Business and conference travel attracts independent business travellers (both domestic and international) who choose Kenya as their business destination. All three product lines have a touch of cultural tourism activity. Data reveals that Kenya attracted 1,114,000 international tourists in 2015. The terrorist attack which began in 2011-2014 affected the industry, hence, the low number of international tourists.

Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Kenya (Source:

Kenya’s aviation industry is its tourism backbone. Its international airports are the first point of call for many visiting tourists. Kenya is an international airline hub with direct access that far exceeds the capacity of any other country in East Africa. Kenya’s eight international and domestic airports handle tremendous traffic. Data from International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) shows that Kenya airports had a total of 4,874,590 air passengers in 2015. This ranked it 5th in terms of air passenger traffic in Africa. Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi is a fully-fledged hub in East Africa. The airport has attained international standard.

Kenya Airways (Source: Janam Parikh Aviation Photography)

The country also has its own national carrier – Kenya Airways – with the government as its largest shareholder. The airline partners with 21 international airlines. Its code share partners include KLM, Hong Kong Airlines, Air France etc. The aviation industry seems to be working well in a country with a little above $63 billion GDP.

Algeria - Tourism for Everybody

YearPopulationAir PassengersGDP (USD Million)Real GDP Growth (% growth)International Tourists ArrivalUnemployment Rate
Sources: World Bank Open Data, Euromonitor International,, IndexMundi

Algeria, the 8th populous African country with 39,928,947 population figures in 2015 is a sovereign state located in North Africa. The country boasts $136,783.90 billion GDP in 2015. According to data, Algeria is the 4th richest African country and 54th in the world by gross domestic product. The economy of the country is largely dependent on energy exports.

M’Zab Valley, Algeria (Source: Conde Nast Traveller)

Even though Algeria has a good combination of natural, cultural, and historic endowments that make it a tourist destination, tourism isn’t priority for Algeria. The Algerian government ignored Algeria’s tourist attractions such as M’Zab Valley, a limestone valley containing a large urbanized Oasis and the Tassili n’ Ajjer mountain range, its coastline with 372 beaches, important Roman, Islamic and Christian historic sites for a long-time due to oil and gas dependence. The government only recently began once again to develop the country’s travel and tourism industry. The result so far has been the attraction of about 2.7m, 2.3m, and 1.7m international tourists in 2013, 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Houari Boumediene Airport (Source:

In 2015, Algeria ranked 4th (5,910,835) in Africa’s air passenger traffic. The country possesses 16 international airlines serving more than 28 airports in Algeria. Houari Boumediene Airport is the main international gateway into Algeria and main hub of Algeria’s flagship carrier. Algeria’s aviation industry seems to be working well.

Air Algerie (Sources:

Its national carrier, Air Algerie, offers its services in four continents with 43 international flights and 32 domestic flights. It has code sharing agreements with four airlines: Aigle Azur, Royal Air Maroc, Tunisair, and Turkish Airlines.

South Africa - Inspiring New Ways

YearPopulationAir Passenger GDP (USD Million)Real GDP Growth (% growth)International Tourists ArrivalUnemployment Rate
Sources: World Bank Open Data, Euromonitor International,, IndexMundi

South Africa, the 5th populous country in Africa, had a total of 53,491,333 residents in 2015. Data reveals that South Africa’s GDP was $317,405.80 billion in 2015. This made it the 3rd largest economy in Africa and 32nd in the world by gross domestic product. As a higher-middle income country, South Africa has a diversified economy with contributions from key sectors like mining, agriculture, real estate, telecommunication transportation and tourism.

Table Mountain, Cape Town (Source:

Tourism is very important to South Africa’s economy. In 2015, the country attracted 8,903,773 international tourists. Its eye-catching landscapes attract tourists from all over the world.  Its deserts, large savannahs, wetlands and long stretches of rugged coastline and beaches are captivating; thus, eco-sports tourism is increasingly popular in the country.

Tambo International Airport, formerly known as Johannesburg International Airport (Source: eNews Channel Africa)

South Africa has also developed its aviation system to support its tourism industry. Its airports are of international standard. According to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) data, South Africa, among other African countries, had the highest air passengers’ traffic (53,491,333) in 2015.  South Africa is an aviation hub. It houses Africa’s busiest airport – Tambo International Airport formerly known as Johannesburg International Airport. The airport is one of only four airports in the world that fly scheduled non-stop services to all 6 inhabited continents. It ranks 30th in the world.  Other important airports in South Africa are Cape Town International Airport which ranks 22nd in the world with about 24 airlines operating from the location to over 100 leading destinations worldwide and King Shaka International, Durban.

South African Airways (Source:

The country has its national carrier – South African Airways, owned by the government. The airline flies nine intercontinental routes from its Johannesburg hub. South African Airways has code sharing agreements with twenty-three airlines such as Air Canada, Air China, and Lufthansa etc.  With these agreements, the country has been able to develop the growth of tourism from these countries into South Africa. With moderate population, high GDP, high tourists’ arrival, the country has every reason to keep developing its aviation industry and position itself as an aviation hub in Africa.

Ethiopia - Land of Origins

YearPopulationAir Passenger Traffic GDP (USD Million)Real GDP Growth (% growth)International Tourists ArrivalUnemployment Rate
Sources: World Bank Open Data, Euromonitor International,, IndexMundi

Ethiopia is the 2nd most populous (98,942,102) African country in 2015 and the most populous landlocked country in the world. It is located in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopian is a poor country with $61.54 billion GDP in 2015. It ranks the 9th richest African country and 73th richest country in the world by GDP.

Gondar: The City of Castles, Ethiopia (Source:

In 2015, Ethiopia was awarded the World Best Tourism Destination by European Council on Tourism and Trade.  It was chosen out of 31 countries due to its beauty, landscapes, and culture. It attracted 864,000 international tourists in 2015. The main source countries for the tourist flow are China, the US, Nigeria, Sudan and Belgium. The country houses nine UNESCO world heritage sites for archeological history.

Ethiopian Airlines (Source: Daily Guide Africa)

The country has a well-developed aviation system. Its national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines became Africa’s largest carrier in 2013, overtaking South African Airways and EgyptAir. The airline which is solely owned by the government consists of 76-strong fleet. Its hub is at  Bole International Airport, Addis Ababa and it flies to more destinations in Africa than any other carrier. Although most travellers do not stay in Ethiopia, they pass through the country on transit to other countries.

Bole International Airport, Addis Ababa (Source:

Ethiopia has one of the biggest aviation hubs in Africa. It had the 3rd largest (7,074,779) air passenger traffic in 2015. The Addis Ababa Bole International Airport is of international standard. Its ongoing $350 million expansion would be due for completion in 2018. By that time, it is expected that the airport would triple current passenger capacity. The country is also planning to build a major airport hub for the whole of Africa. The planned airport would include hotels, shopping malls, office building and homes just as airports in Dubai and London. This relatively poor country is investing so much in aviation!

Egypt - Where It All Begins

YearPopulationAir Passenger Traffic GDP (USD Million)Real GDP Growth (% growth)International Tourists ArrivalUnemployment Rate
Sources: World Bank Open Data, Euromonitor International,, IndexMundi

Egypt is the 3rd most populous country in Africa after Nigeria and Ethiopia. Its population was 84,705,681 in 2015.  It lies on the extreme north/east of Africa and south/west of Asia. It has a well-developed economy with $319,312.90 billion GDP in 2015, 3.9% growth from 2014. As such, Egypt is the 2nd richest African country and the 31st richest country by GDP globally.

Ancient Karnak Temple in Luxor, Egypt (Source: Mark Fox, CC: BY-NC 2.0)

Egypt developed its agricultural, writing, government and urban systems long before many other African countries did. Its tourism sector makes up a large part of the country’s economy. World Bank data reveals that more than 9 million international tourists arrived Egypt in 2015. Its iconic monuments such as Giza Necropolis, the Valley of the Kings, attract lots of tourists into the country.

Cairo International Airport (Source:

The country’s aviation system is also well developed. It has a flag carrier airline – EgyptAir. It is a state-owned company with special legislation permitting the management to operate as if the company were privately owned without any interference from the government. It has code sharing agreement with 19 airlines such as Kenya Airways, South African Airways, Australian Airways, and Turkish Airlines . The airline operates from Cairo International Airport hub

Egypt Air (Source:

Cairo International is the second busiest airport in Africa after Johannesburg International in South Africa. The airport meet up with international standard. Egypt has more than 27 airports, two of which were inaugurated in  October 2016 to service the growing number of international travellers to Egypt and lessen the pressure on Cairo International Airport.  Egypt Air passenger traffic summed to 10,159,464 in 2015.

Nigeria - Good People, Great Nation

YearPopulationAir Passenger Traffic GDP (USD Million)Real GDP Growth (% growth)International Tourists ArrivalUnemployment Rate
Sources: World Bank Open Data, Euromonitor International,, IndexMundi

Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa with a population figure of 183,523,432 in 2015. It is the most populous black nation on earth, the richest African country and the 23rd richest country in the world by GDP ranking. The country’s GDP in 2015 was $494,186.90 billion. Nigeria is endowered with human and material resources, one of the reasons for its accolade – Giant of Africa.

Olumo Rock, Abeokuta (Sources:

In 2015, the country attracted 1,255,000 international tourists. The Osun Oshogbo Groove and Sukur Cultural Landscape are two tourists’ attraction sites listed on UNESCO world heritage sites. Others sites like Sungbo Eredo, Idanre Hill, Surame Cultural Landscape, Ancient Kano City etc. are on UNESCO’s tentative list.

Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos (Source:

Nigerian has five functioning international airports, with Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos and Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport in Abuja being the largest. None of the country’s airports operate with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) certification and therefore are not up to international standard. The lack of maintenance of airport facilities is one of the key reasons for this.

Nigeria Airways in the good old days (Source:,_Nigeria_Airways_AN0633122.jpg)

The country does not currently have a national carrier. Since the demise of Nigerian Airways Limited with $60 million debt and a fleet of three aircrafts in 2003, the Nigerian government has been unable to revive the airline. Partly as a result of this (as well as the decrepit state of its airports), the country appears to be losing the opportunity to become the aviation hub of the West Africa sub-region. International airlines and investors are said to prefer Ghana as an aviation hub to Nigeria.

Nigeria has the 6th largest air passenger traffic in Africa after South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Algeria, and Kenya in 2015. Data from International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) reveals that Nigeria had a total of 3,857,424 in air passenger traffic in 2015. However, data from National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) recorded 14,330,857 in the same year. The difference is significant since, according to NBS data, Nigeria would rank 2nd in Africa.

Whatever the case, the fact that countries like Algeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt and South Africa are ahead of Nigeria in terms of aviation infrastructure is rather puzzling since, on paper, it has more economic means, human capital and financial resources to build its aviation sector to be of world class standard. For example, Kenya and Ethiopia, though relatively poor countries in comparison with Nigeria, are faring much better.

Kenya, South Africa, and Ethiopia are presently the three most vibrant hubs in Africa, transiting millions of aircraft and passengers to numerous countries in the world. These countries including Algeria and Egypt have national carriers. Ghana, without a national carrier, is rising up to the challenge and winning the aviation hub race in West Africa. Nigeria has more reasons be an aviation hub than most of these countries. Its population is large. It is rich. It has high air passenger traffic and international tourists’ arrival. It has all the potentials to acquire wealth through a developed aviation system. But why has our aviation industry failed to develop to an international standard?

…At a glance

About Doyinsola Onadipe