Successful airlines: The secret is in the dull food

We just returned from Senegal, having made the round trip on Ethiopian Airlines. Both Kenya Airways (KQ) and Ethiopian Airlines arrived at Bamako not too far apart, and then on to Dakar where we arrived to what I gather is the standard initiation on this route — lost bags.

I have hopped around Africa on KQ and Ethiopian over the years, and the idea that these two airlines come quite close to being the carriers of Africa is inescapable. Forget South African Airways, it has not yet hacked it and it is sinking in debt. If KQ and Ethiopian stopped doing their runs in West Africa, it would be a mega disaster.

So when we were sitting there in Bamako, it struck me that East Africa does airlines quite well, compared to the appalling state of aviation in other parts of the continent, excepting perhaps bits of North Africa. Apart from KQ and Ethiopian, there is RwandaAir and Air Uganda.

Tanzania and Burundi are the ones still stuck in aviation mud. There is no equivalent of KQ or Ethiopian in West Africa, although they probably travel more than East Africans.

Why? West Africans, to begin with, are more comfortable in their African skins that East Africans. In most of the region, formal dress is African wear and in some countries a president appearing in a western suit would be committing political suicide.

You will see more statues celebrating Africanness in and around Dakar, than in the whole of East Africa combined. Sidewalks and bridges are decorated with African art. When you put so much of your history and culture into your living and working spaces, you embrace your land more deeply. When you leave, a lot more of you remains behind.

Fiery cuisine

You will not invest too much soul into building an escape vehicle, in this case an airline. East Africans don’t have this kind of connectedness to their culture. At a summit of the East African Community all our presidents will show up in western suits. Getting away is easier for us, and we tend to have weak links with our soils. Maybe because of that, we think more deeply about building escape vessels, and thus create better airline companies than West Africans.

The second explanation is food. East African food is mostly dull – matooke (bananas), maize meal, cassava, and so on. The Ethiopians, though, do much better and their food is quite tasty. The only problem is that it is shamefully limited in range. Everything is eaten with injera (a soft chapati-like bread).

West African food is not only more varied, but is fiery in ways East African food cannot even dream of. A visitor who dives into hot Nigerian, Ghanaian or Ivory Coast serving in haste could end up being carried away from the restaurant in a wheelbarrow, having fainted.

The bland and limited range of East African food, I suspect, gives us a mild temperament and approach to things that is suitable to running airlines. West Africa’s fiery cuisine tends to give them a peppery temperament. That makes them much better at sports like sprints and football than East Africans. But a very lousy temperament for running international airlines.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa. E-mail: Twitter: @cobbo3