There have been clamour for Nigerian airlines to become fully engaged in cargo delivery as alternative source of revenue generation, since passenger service suffered under the COVID-19 lockdown.
Since the lockdown that led to the suspension of commercial flights, cargo delivery has been going on and many airlines that have strong cargo market augmented their earnings at the time airlines forced their personnel into leave without pay, while others lay off their staff.
Some industry operatives who spoke to THISDAY said over the years, Nigerian airlines have not developed the cargo market; so most farm produce and others are being moved by road, as Nigeria does not have well developed train system. Sometimes goods spend three days on the road from the northern part of the country to the south.
THISDAY spoke to cargo specialist and the President, Association of Foreign Airlines and Representatives in Nigeria, Kingsley Nwokoma, who said that there is a huge market for Nigerian airlines in West and Central Africa but this market is being exploited by foreign carriers.
Nwokoma, said many countries in West and Central Africa depend on Nigeria for their everyday product needs and what the international courier company, DHL does is that it used Lagos as a hub.
It would bring cargo needed in the sub-region with large, wide body aircraft and then redistribute the cargo to neighbouring countries with smaller airplanes, noting that this would have been a potential market for Nigerian airlines.
"Cargo operation is not a business you just jump into. You have to plan it and there should be synergy among Nigerian airlines if they want to go into cargo airlifting and that will be key to their survival post COVID-19. That will be thinking out of the box," he said.
Nwokoma said Nigeria has agricultural produce that are perishable goods but are allowed to waste every year because of the inability to take them to the market of demand overseas.
He noted that many agricultural produce in Nigeria are needed at the international market, a huge potential which he said remains unexplored.
"Most of the African countries in West and Central sub-regions rely so much on Nigeria. Countries like the Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone and others have Nigeria as their key source of products; so Nigerian airlines can harness this opportunity and supply the needed goods to these countries from our country.
"You may not know that yam and mango are in very high demand in many parts of the world, including New Zealand, Thailand, different parts of Asia, Americas and Europe. Nigeria is the highest producer of yam and cassava in the world.
"But Ghana is known to export mangoes to Europe. If you go to the big stores in UK you buy mangoes exported from Ghana. But Nigeria has the highest variety of mangoes in the world and can produce mango juice with different tastes. These are unexplored market where Nigerian airlines can prosper," he said.
Nwokoma also noted that Nigeria could revive the meat factory in Bauchi state where hundreds of cows could be killed and processed and distributed to other parts of the country by air. This would cut off the several abattoirs with unhygienic conditions where cattle are slaughtered daily.
There are key things that are needed for Nigerian airlines to benefit from this huge potential cargo market.
Nwokoma said they have to work together. Government has to remove the bottlenecks at the airports where there are about 16 agencies that must insist on inspecting export produce and because they are largely perishables, by the time the agencies finish their inspection, which may take days, the goods are destroyed.
He advocated for one-stop inspection whereby little time would be wasted on inspection and the goods would be moved.
"We have to fully implement the ease of doing business to ensure that those perishable goods are not delayed. We have 16 agencies at the airport and if everyone must inspect the goods they will spoil before you move them.
"The airlines should be more focused but above all, we have to have sophisticated packaging, quality control and make sure that our packaging is acknowledged globally. When these are done, I assure you we have unlimited international market for our agricultural products," Nwokoma said.
He insisted that the major setback to cargo export in Nigeria is the bottlenecks at the airports, noting that once they are streamlined into one stop inspection process, goods will spend less time before they are airlifted to various destinations.
Industry operators describe the latent cargo export and distribution market in Nigeria as multibillion business that is waiting for exploitation.