Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Heat and dust

AIRPORTS; Kilimanjaro airport was too good a business opportunity for Mott MacDonald to ignore. The consultant negotiated an operating concession and then faced up to some peculiar local challenges. Andrew Mylius reports.

Small antelope known as dik-dik sometimes make use of drainage ditches to squeeze under Kilimanjaro airport's perimeter fence. Hungry big cats follow the dik-dik and hyenas are close behind to scavenge on the remains.

It's the kind of spectacle people fly in to see on the surrounding Serengeti plain. But it complicates air traffic and ground control so a warden has been hired to shoot the antelope.

Kilimanjaro Airports Development Company, jointly owned by Mott MacDonald, the Tanzanian government and local firm Interconsult, started operating the airport in November last year. Since then a quiet revolution has taken place. Many of the changes like the hiring of a warden are almost imperceptible, says Mott MacDonald airports director Chris Chalk.

However, travellers negotiating customs can now find the green channel - a year ago it was tucked away out of view - which means they no longer have every bag searched by overwhelmed officials. Gaps in the terminal building's roof have been repaired and windows now gleam. Holes in the airport road have been filled.

As a nascent private-sector enterprise Kilimanjaro airport has set about becoming customer friendly. Though the World Bank has funded resurfacing of the runway, this involves few grand-scale structural works. Getting what is already there polished and working smoothly is key to the venture's success, believes Chalk.

He says Mott MacDonald became interested in Kilimanjaro in 1994 while the firm was working in South Africa. The airport was built by the government of Tanzania in 1971 to serve its largest city, the capital of the East African Union, Arusha. It was state-run on a budget that met operational costs, just, and little else.

But Kilimanjaro airport had been well planned, its structures were sound, and 'with a lot of common sense and a bit of magic dust' it could be given a Cinderella-like transformation.

'Kilimanjaro turns out passengers who can afford to spend,' says Chalk. In 1997, 170,000 people used the airport. Common sense consists in part of creating a level of service and amenity in line with the expectations of business class tourists and jet-set safarists.

Kilimanjaro airport is the most direct point of access to the Serengeti and Mt Kilimanjaro itself. Chalk and Mott's partners in Kadco believe the natural splendour on the airport's doorstep will keep it in steady business.

Further factors in the venture's favour were Tanzania's minuscule GDP, so low it could only increase, and its political and social stability within a notoriously turbulent continent. 'If there's a problem in Kenya we gain. Airlines want to go somewhere that's safe,' says Chalk.

Meanwhile, Mott saw that-on the-spot payment in 'greenbacks' of landing and passenger service fees would be both a novelty in the world of engineering and good for cash flow.

Mott approached the government in 1995 and started negotiating an operating concession. Tanzania was keen to attract inward investment and wanted demonstration projects that would promote it commercially. The two parties signed a memorandum of understanding under the name Airports Alliance.

Financial and traffic forecasting was carried out by British Airways consultancy division Speedwing. Airport management was provided by Amsterdam Airport Schipol and operations management has been supplied by the UK Civil Aviation Authority. London law firm Cameron McKenna provided legal advice and Standard Bank supplied financial direction.

'Taking a government owned airport into the private sector was difficult because there were no accounts,' recalls Chalk. Relatively small passenger through-put did not lend to a bidding-led trade sale. Meanwhile, with no significant construction to be done there was no work or pay-back for contractors. It would have been impossible to approach Kilimanjaro airport as a build operate transfer scheme,' says Chalk.

Mott signed a 25 year concession in July 98. Though it took a 55% holding in Kadco the firm insisted the government held a 'golden share' of 24%.

The government has two representatives on Kadco's board. Mott was anxious to reassure the government it 'wasn't going to have the wool pulled over its eyes' by a barnstorming foreign firm.

Kadco negotiated control not only of the terminal building but of the runway and air traffic control, making operation of the airport as predictable as possible, says Chalk. 'There are fewer external factors influencing us. If Kadco wants to put in an instrument landing system, build a medical centre or cut the grass it can. It's a business decision. That's important for a small airport.'

An $11M (£6.8M) first stage capital programme was launched last year to spruce up the existing infrastructure. It includes making electrical junction boxes snake and rat proof, improving security and upgrading the blackboards on which flight information is displayed.

The programme also involves liaising with local land owners and chiefs to draw up a master plan for the 10,900ha estate surrounding the airport and managed by Kadco. Future development could include hotels.

Because the airport is a major local employer, Kadco is also taking on improvement of local water supplies, and refurbishment and enlargement of the school.

Chalk says not every dusty airport is a potential Kilimanjaro. Turning a small state-sector facility into a successful private sector enterprise will often require as much engineering and construction as careful management. However, Mott's activity in Tanzania is already exciting interest across East Africa.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.