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China Daily Website

Out of Africa, straight to China to connect on opportunities

Updated: 2013-12-06 01:18
By Li Lianxing ( China Daily)

Out of Africa, straight to China to connect on opportunities

A Boeing 777-300ER aircraft waits at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in November for the first direct flight by Kenya Airways from Nairobi to Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. Meng Chenguang / Xinhua

The Maasai Mara National Reserve has become a symbol of Kenya because of its rich wildlife and cultural legacies. But now it has another association — one that brings Kenyans and Chinese closer together.

When our Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, named Maasai Mara, landed at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport on Nov 19, it marked the first direct Kenya Airways flight from Nairobi. Warm applause broke out among the 400 passengers, mostly from African countries, as the plane came to a halt.

I was aboard the inaugural flight, having been invited by Kenya Airways, also known as KQ. I had never taken a KQ flight to China before, even though I am based in Nairobi, because the airline's previous route to Guangzhou included a stopover in Bangkok of several hours, making the long-distance journey a bit frustrating.

To be honest, I couldn't wait to try this new nonstop flight, which promised to give me a much more convenient way to return home in the future.

I had just returned to Nairobi from South Africa and was really tired. Finding the prospect of another long international trip daunting, I went to the sales counter to see if any business-class seats were available, thinking that I would pay the extra cost of the ticket myself in order to get a good sleep on board.

But business class was full, and even the economy-class seats were nearly all taken.

After checking in, I went to the lounge, which had become quite familiar to me.

But it wasn't so familiar this time. The lounge had been thoroughly transformed into a party room. All the seats had been removed, replaced by buffet, beverage and cocktail tables. The room was decorated with many Chinese elements, such as fans and red lanterns. And in the front was a stage set for an official ceremony to launch the new flight.

I was talking to a 54-year-old South African woman in the party room as we waited to depart. She told me her clothing and textile business was so large that she had to go to China twice a month for new products. She even showed me her multiple-entry visa.

"If I was going to Guangzhou from Johannesburg, I used to have to take South African Airways to Hong Kong and then take the train or travel by road to my destination. Also, the ticket price was higher," she said. "The KQ flight is a bit complicated for me because I have to transfer in Nairobi, but at least I don't need to haul my huge amount of luggage to the train station when going to and from Guangzhou."

According to KQ, the introduction of nonstop flights between Nairobi and Guangzhou comes as trade and tourism connections between Kenya and East Asia grow and as Kenya works to cultivate China as a key market.

Kenya itself lacks the demand to fill more than 2,000 seats a week on the direct flights, but the airline is pinning its hopes on flights to and from other parts of the continent, particularly West Africa. Based at the Horn of Africa, Kenya Airways is well positioned geographically for connecting the continent to the rest of the world, as is its rival, Ethiopian Airlines.

Growing ties between the two sides will be another measure of success. Guangzhou alone has become home to more than 300,000 members of the African diaspora, which is a driving force in the fast-moving business relationship between China and Africa.

Contrary to the stereotypical view that China is dominant in the relationship and pushes goods to Africa, the reality is that Africa has a strong desire to come to China to find products that suit its own markets and conditions. That's why Guangzhou, a city surrounded by the most diverse set of factories in southern China, has become a favorite place for many African traders and other international business people.

It's a pity that so few Chinese airlines are flying African routes. It's a great market with a good deal of potential. Africa-based airlines, including Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, South African Airways, Egypt Air and even Air Mauritius, are flexing their muscles by adding Chinese destinations to compete with other international carriers.

Against this background, it is possible to believe that the new direct flight to China will not dilute the customer base but instead create more business opportunities for both Africans and Chinese.

I only hope they can stock the mini-dental pack on board soon. Passengers need to freshen up after a 10-hour international flight before they meet their business partners.

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