On October 29, 2018, Kenya launched its first direct flight to the United States. The flight from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport was through flag carrier airline of Kenya, Kenya Airways (KQ). The launch of the maiden flight was surrounded by much euphoria with many celebrating the implications that this had for the relationship between Kenya and the US. The November 2018 issue of Kenya Airways in-flight magazine, Msafiri, featured an analysis of how this will improve Kenya’s relations with the United States.  Part of the analysis showed how direct flights to the US will lead to increased trade with the US, and according to KQ Cargo’s General Manager, flowers harvested on Monday in Kenya can be on a table in New York by Wednesday.


Direct flights to the US are to be lauded, as it cuts down the lengthy travels between Kenya and the US and increases revenue generation. As Kenya Airways launched its inaugural direct flight to the US, the media reported closely on the matter creating jubilation among Kenyans on social media. While we celebrate this milestone, we should reflect on the fact that there are no direct flights from Kenya to Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and several other countries in Africa. Instead of being overzealous that Kenyan flowers will be on tables in New York within a day, we should focus on how we can make it possible for a Tunisian businessman or businesswoman to fly into Kenya without the need for a visa and without a lengthy lay-over in Europe before returning to Africa.


Intra-African trade has been posited as the panacea for economic growth in Africa. In January 2011, the AU Summit endorsed a recommendation to fast-track the establishment of a Pan-African Free Trade. In the subsequent year, the AU Summit of Heads of State and Government was focused on the theme, ‘Boosting Intra-Africa Trade’. As a result, the AU endorsed an Action Plan for Boosting Intra-African Trade. The importance of Intra-African trade has been echoed by the African Development Bank, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and even global institutions such as the World Bank and United Nations Conference on Trade And Development (UNCTAD).


Intra-Africa trade was at 16.7% as at 2016. In March 2018, forty-nine African nations signed the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) which is a continent-wide free trade agreement that is projected to increase intra-African trade by 52.3%. The AfCFTA is expected to come into force when at least twenty two countries ratify it. Its implications are preferential treatment with an aim to increase intra-African trade.


Africa’s Agenda 2063 is guided by the AU Vision of “An integrated, prosperous, and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena.” An integrated Africa requires integration across all sectors including an integration across physical borders, through the removal of obstacles to the free movement of people. The Protocol to the Treaty establishing the African Economic Community Relating to Free Movement of Persons, Right of Residence and Right of Establishment (Free Movement Protocol) notes that the free movement of persons in Africa will facilitate the establishment of the Continental Free Trade Area, which is a step towards increase in intra-African trade as a result of integration. While forty-nine African nations signed the AfCFTA, only thirty nations signed the Free Movement Protocol. Tunisia is among the countries that has not signed the Free Movement Protocol. This is an indication that much still needs to be done in order to facilitate the free movement of persons across the African continent and direct flights could be one such tool.


The airline industry however, like other industries, is guided by the principle of supply and demand. Thus, to create a case for direct flights, there is need to create a demand for this. This requires that governments make it easy for people to transact business across borders within Africa. Governments must enter into free trade agreements that eliminate tariff barriers and work to develop policies that could ease the process of foreigners registering a company in its jurisdiction, simplify business regulations, lower cross-border taxes, and provide security for business operations among others.


It may be argued that for this to be made possible, free movement must be made possible, a classic scenario of the chicken and the egg situation, determining whether free trade will result in free movement of people or whether free movement of people will result in free trade. Instead of grappling with this question, governments should pursue both free trade and free movement, developing policies that can allow for parallel growth in free movement and free trade. Other trade and development partners will also need to come on board. The African Export-Import Bank for example, has developed a Tunisia-Africa Trade and Investment Promotion Programme, which will support Tunisian businesses trading with the rest of Africa.


Tunisia applied to join the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), of which Kenya is a member, in February 2016. The application was admitted and on 23 July 2018, Tunisia joined COMESA. Research shows that most intra-African trade is occurring within Regional Economic Communities. Perhaps this is an indication that relations between Kenya and Tunisia are likely to improve which might in turn raise the demand for direct flights between Kenya and Tunisia. The implementation of the AfCFTA, steered by the African Union, might also lead to increased demand of direct intra-African flights where none exist.


The case of Kenya and Tunisia is just one example of the need to increase intra-African relations which will in turn increase intra-African trade. As we celebrate strides towards increasing extra-African trade, let us bear in mind that it is intra-African trade which we must focus on in order to be on the path of realizing Africa’s Agenda 2063. Let us work on free movement of people in Africa, and perhaps, in a few years, we will not only celebrate that a business man flying from Nairobi to Tunis can drink a cup of Kenyan tea over a business meeting a day or two after his arrival in Tunis, but also that his partner can fly directly from Nairobi to the geographically small but cocoa-rich country of Sao Tome and Principe.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Future Africa Forum.