In to Africa: The road more travelled

May 23, 2011

The road less travelled
Early last year, when John Lovejoy, 31, bisected Africa from north to South by car, he found the continent’s roads to be much less welcoming than the Africans he met along the way.

The intrepid American was on a test-run for a charity rally he was organising to coincide with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. A low point on the 11,876-mile ride from Barcelona to Cape Town came on the 217-mile Pointe Noire-Brazzaville dirt road in Congo; it took Lovejoy and his younger brother a week to cover a distance that should have taken a day.

They were expecting travel around the continent to be hard work; the surprise was that the warmest welcomes came from the most notoriously inhospitable countries. In Nigeria, where the “tarmac roads more often resembled the lunar surface”, their car was stricken with three punctures in quick succession, leaving them stranded 30km outside the southern town of Calabar.

In minutes, a Nigerian man driving a Lexus stopped to help, whisking them away to a garage in town. The kindness of strangers is a wonderful facet of humanity – but this stranger, named Sammy, did more than just help out. He found the Lovejoys a hotel, took them on tours and to fancy meals, all the while refusing to let them pay for anything.

The brothers continued with their journey, astonished at what they had just experienced. “It was Africa,” Lovejoy explains. “And it still had a lot more to throw at us.”

The road more travelled
As any frequent visitor to Sub-Saharan Africa will tell you, the rugged, pioneer-spirited nature of this vast region is part of the attraction. But as the growing powerhouse once referred to as the Dark Continent evolves as a business destination – in telecoms, banking, pharmaceuticals, as well as in the more traditional oil, gas and minerals projects – its tough terrain is no longer the sole preserve of burly miners, building contractors and aid workers. Commodities now make up less than a quarter of Africa’s GDP.

Indeed, a Standard Chartered banker who makes frequent trips to Accra in Ghana or Lagos and Abuja, Nigeria, and who wishes to remain anonymous, complained to me that the demand is such that business-class seats on his connecting flights from Johannesburg or the Gulf are now packed with businesspeople from all over the world.

“Half the time I travel with no hotel room reserved,” he told me. “Everything is booked up in advance.”

Declan Meighan, Managing Director of security specialists Maxwell Lucas has seen Africa business travel among his clients increase exponentially in the last decade; with Barclays’ expansion into Mauritius, PwC’s into Zambia and Ericsson’s into Mozambique, Nigeria and Ghana. He also points to China’s insatiable appetite for commodities in Africa that has seen highways built, new tracks being laid and ports deepened.

Tim Willis at Travel Security Services (TSS, a joint venture between risk consultancy Control Risks and International SOS) has witnessed greater numbers of travellers going to more diverse (read “risky”) destinations as Africa opens up to present greater investment opportunities.

According to the World Bank’s latest report into the ease of doing business around the world, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, though improving year on year, are listed as among the hardest in which to operate. Here, the executive must negotiate a swathe of challenges, from start-up regulations to ambiguous tax payments. Aviation facilities often remain basic beyond the main business hubs (you may not find seamless business travel in Chad’s N’Djamena or Central African Republic’s Bangui).

In many of the continent’s hubs, outside of South Africa, simply going from airport to hotel to restaurant to nightspot requires care and planning. Airports in the more established trading destinations (Nairobi, Lagos) have developed to support the rising business tide, but even a busy hub airport like Lagos does not provide a seamless experience.

The Singapore-based banker describes it as, “Two domestic terminals, one international terminal, no real transportation between the three… even more shocking, travel agents don’t always realise this.” His favourite airport is Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta International; despite being a bit claustrophobic, “it’s amazing what a good coffee shop [the indigenous Java Coffee chain] can do to make travel through there that much more pleasant.”

Then there’s the hotel to consider. TSS advise staying at international business class hotels in sub-Saharan Africa as they tend to have higher standards than local four- or five-star hotels.

As for venturing outside in the evening, Declan Meighan of Maxwell Lucas points out that most major hotels cater for the business traveller and have excellent restaurant and bar facilities. If you need to escape, “make sure you are with a local colleague who can advise you of the safer areas. It is wise to have an ICE (In Case of Emergency) number of a local colleague in your speed dial.”

Click here to read the second part of this business traveller report, which goes on to focus on security issues.

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