En route back to Montreal after participating in the AviationAfrica conference this week in Kigali, Rwanda, I was struck by the enthusiasm participants had for the future of aviation in Africa. The event was expertly organised by Alan Peaford and his team at African Aerospace magazine, and brought together leaders from airlines, airports, manufacturers, technology providers and many others to address the challenges, but also the tremendous opportunities Africa presents for aviation – from open skies policies to airport expansions, financing and manpower training, safety and security, as well as the introduction of UAVs. And, in many ways Rwanda is leading the way – it is a country on the move. The event was honoured by the presence of President Paul Kagami, who expressed that for Africa to achieve significant success in tourism and trade, the continent must embrace open skies. Rwanda has stepped up, and is pursuing efforts towards the creation of a single African air transport market. This is the kind of pro-business and visionary leadership that a panel of airline CEOs confirmed as essential to building a vibrant air transport market in Africa.
The panel on UAVs that I participated in also demonstrated how Rwanda is leading the way in reaping the benefits of this new technology while addressing the risks in a pragmatic way. The approach of the Rwandan CAA – the regulator – has been to work in a collaborative manner with UAV operators who must demonstrate the safety case for UAS operations. UAV operator Zipline is providing a valuable service to public health in Rwanda by being able to deliver vital drugs and blood products to remote locations that are otherwise hard to reach. As Will Hetzler – COO of Zipline – explained, Rwanda has been an ideal proofing ground for the beyond-visual-line-of-sight delivery drone concept, the type of operation that is still not allowed in most jurisdictions, but is the way of the future. Much in the same way that Africa was an early adopter of mobile phone payment systems, it is also at the forefront in the adoption of UAV technologies, which in my view will extend to the integration of artificial intelligence and fully autonomous operations. While the adoption of new technologies in Africa has been driven by necessity, the continent also does not have to contend with legacy systems and institutional hurdles that stymie their introduction in the West.
Safety is often raised as a major hurdle to the development of aviation in Africa. Yet, what I heard from participants was tremendous concern over this reputation and interest in improvement and learning from the experience of others. “Knowledge without wisdom is like water in sand” is a Guinean proverb I cited to start off the panel discussion on safety. There has been a great amount of planning, best practice guidance and training material produced over the years to improve aviation safety, especially in Africa. The knowledge exists. It is now necessary to make use of this knowledge and experience for deeper understanding of what drives safety improvement. It starts with good governance. In Africa, political will and commitment is essential, as are strong and sustainable institutions that will ensure good governance and safety performance. The development of a robust safety culture requires a solid foundation. Further, the operational level needs to be empowered to “live and breathe” safety in such a way that it becomes the number one priority and concern for those on the frontline, who can act and report without fear of retribution. In the end, safety is everyone’s business. It’s a team sport. My sum-up was that safety improvement requires good governance; good safety culture; and above all, good teamwork. And, my sense from the conference participants was that this was the wisdom they had already embraced.