Astral Aviation’s Sanjeev Gadhia has stepped up to the role of TIACA Vice Chairman two years after joining the Board as the first representative from Africa. TIACA Times asked him to share his vision for the air cargo industry, his thoughts on the potential for drones, and the his predictions for growth in the African market.
Tell us about the birth of Astral Aviation – where did the passion for planes come from?
Astral Aviation was born in 1999 to cater for the demand for humanitarian air-cargoes in the East and Horn of Africa region, due to the increase of relief activities in the region, especially in Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan,
Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The absence of freighters in Eastern Africa resulted in the opportunity to start an all-cargo airline, which resulted in the birth of Astral Aviation.
From 2000 to 2006, the focus was on charters, but from 2007 onwards, we expanded into schedule services, which accounts for over 70% of our turnover.
I am a banker by profession with no aviation background, hence the reliance on experienced personnel was essential in the early days and have since been an important attribute to the success of the airline, as we have the best team in the continent, with an average retention rate of 15 years.
I enjoy being a part of a successful privately-owned airline which is debt-free, hence the importance of financial discipline is important in a region where many airlines have collapsed or are on life-support due to high debt-exposure.
We are cautiously optimistic in our strategy and have a long-term vision to expand our fleet and network.
Are drones the most exciting thing to happen to air cargo in the last decade?
Indeed – Military drones have been around for over a decade in many parts of the world, but there has been a lot of development in commercial drones especially for agriculture, medical deliveries, surveillance, and e-commerce.
Cargo drones have immense opportunity in both the developing and developed world especially in regions where there is a lack of infrastructure and the need to have a lower-cost base compared to conventional helicopters, thus bringing down the high cost of specialized deliveries in difficult to reach regions.
While regulations are not fully aligned with the development of commercial drones, we expect a renewed focus will take place from 2020 onwards due to the importance of last-mile delivery in rural areas, which will be driven by the e-commerce players, who are developing drones for e-commerce parcels delivery.
What are the possibilities for drones?
The possibilities are endless but we are focusing on the following sectors over the next 18 months.
Training to empower African youth in drone-technology and the setting up of a drone-corridor in Kenya to allow manufacturers to test their drones in a safe airspace.
Cargo deliveries in remote regions using our flagship two-ton, cargo-drone, FlyOx along with deliveries in smaller cargo-drones from 50 kgs upwards, along with specialized logistics.
Agriculture solutions in mapping and spraying farms in East Africa.
Aerial inspections for various clients including in the oil, gas, mining, and energy sector
What does it mean to be a “New Generation Leader for Africa”? What are the challenges and opportunities of working in Africa?
A New Generation Leader is one who breaks-away from traditional norms of thinking and incorporates new ideologies which brings in diversity, passion, and sustainability.
Traditionally, African entrepreneurs have lived by set rules, which have been passed on by generations of like-minded people, whereas the new entrepreneurs work outside of their comfort zone and share a new vision of embracing technology as a necessity for improving the wellbeing of the markets they serve.
There are several challenges of working in Africa arising out of bureaucracy and the slow pace of reform, in addition to corruption, inadequate infrastructure, high taxes, insecurity, and social inequality, but the opportunities which are in the horizon are immense as the region moves from isolation to integration, with the creation of the biggest free-trade area, the Africa Continent Free Trade Area, which will enable Africa to trade more than before.
There are significant investments being made in infrastructure with greater accountability for timelines then before. Mobile banking in Africa has the highest per-capita usage compared to other continents, and the emergence of the Middle Class is poised to offer opportunities for various sectors.
Politically, Africa is more stable than before, and there is a wave of change with new leaders who are adapting the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) model of running their countries.
What does TIACA bring to the industry in Africa?
TIACA is able to reach out to the air cargo fraternity in Africa and also to assist the African Airlines Association (AFRAA) in its lobbying efforts on a global level.
TIACA has been promoting its air cargo development program to African airlines and has encouraged a greater participation from them at TIACA events.
Air cargo – a diverse industry to work in, or an industry stuck in its ways?
Times are changing for air cargo as there is greater level of diversity, inclusivity, and sustainability.
In my position as Vice-Chairman of TIACA and Vice-Chairman, Cargo, of AFRAA, it is my objective to promote the three mantras and to ensure that every member of the air cargo supply-chain, regardless of size, nationality, geography, or gender can be represented.
About SanJeep Gandhi
Sanjeev Gadhia launched cargo carrier Astral Aviation in 2000, which has grown to become the largest private cargo airline in Eastern Africa, boasting a fleet of B747–400F, DC9F, B727F, and F27 freighters.
He is also the Founder of commercial drone operator Astral Aerial Solutions Ltd, rated in ‘Africa’s Top 10 Tech Startups’ and selected by Airbus to participate in the Bizlab #Africa4Future accelerator programme, as well as being recognized by the World Bank as the winner of the – Data Analytics of its Disruptive Agricultural Technology challenge.
Sanjeev is rated as a “New Generation Leader for Africa” by the African Leadership Network, while Astral was rated as the best all-cargo carrier in Africa in 2011, 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019.
In September 2016, Sanjeev was appointed Vice Chairman of AFRAA’s Cargo Committee and in 2017, he joined the TIACA Board, its first member from Africa. He became TIACA Vice Chairman this year.
A banker by profession, Sanjeev has an MBA in International Business, in addition to being a member of the Entrepreneurs Organization (EO), Kenya Chapter, and the Young Professional’s Organization (YPO) of Africa, Great Lakes Region.
Sanjeev is a Kenyan citizen and is married with two children.