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Africa's growth will win out over terror

26 September 2013, 11:39 *Daniel Silke

“Take your hard hat and bullet-proof vest” was the advice from a client of mine as I winged my way to Nairobi to address the African Hotel Investment Forum.

The Westgate Mall terror siege had not yet been resolved and with wall-to-wall overage on the BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera detailing the dead and injured, you would be forgiven for thinking that Kenya was collapsing.

Having spent my youth in apartheid-ravaged South Africa, I was used to areas of cities becoming no-go zones. I also knew that what occurs in one portion of a city is often very isolated to that area and has little bearing on normal life elsewhere or in the next suburb – or even only one block away.

And that’s what I found in Nairobi – a city slowly starting to get back to life.

Three months ago, a major section of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was destroyed in a debilitating fire. The makeshift arrivals hall is now the lower level of a new parking garage, complete with passport control, immigration and baggage carousels. Within a few efficient minutes from landing, I was in the car heading for my hotel.

As my driver exited the perimeter of the airport, a massive billboard advertising the Westgate Mall appeared. It referred to the mall as a “shoppers paradise”, leaving me marginally uneasy as I approached the city.

Here I was to present a glowing account of Africa’s economic rise and related information relevant to the hotel, tourism and hospitality industries. The conference could not have been timed worse to present an upbeat account for investors keen to ride the crest of the African growth story.

But the 400 delegates were remarkably unfazed. And correctly so. The broader macroeconomic indicators from Africa are very positive and in no way will it be derailed by terror – no matter how demoralising it might be in the short-term.

Business as usual in Nairobi. (Daniel Silke)

Business as usual in Nairobi. (Daniel Silke)

Business as usual in Nairobi. (Daniel Silke)

The bigger picture of Africa’s demographic explosion, emerging middle class, rising cities as well as improved social and governance indicators should all be recognised as driving the continent well into the future.

Major hotel groups like Accor, Marriott, Carlson Rezidor, Hilton, IHG, Starwood, Mövenpick and Wyndham are all expanding into select markets across the continent. Africa continues to be grossly underserved in terms of hotel rooms compared with other regions, and the levels of GDP growth and foreign business interest are driving the top end of the market.

Just opened in Nairobi is the gleaming new Villa Rosa Kempinski – a haven for business and leisure customers not on a stringent budget. My own accommodation for my stay – at the centrally located but older InterContinental – was buzzing with activity and boasted some very impressive service and food offerings.

Hotel investors realise the bigger picture but are hampered by a variety of predictable bottlenecks. Infrastructure weaknesses, access to finance, finding good local partners and a complex regulatory environment and inefficient visa regimes are impediments to business. Not to mention the growing costs to business as a result of heightened security fears.

At my hotel, no vehicles could park immediately outside and all my baggage was scanned (along with me) every time I entered and exited the lobby.

From my own perspective, African air travel remains far too expensive. My airfare from Cape Town was KES 85 000 – about the same as a similar flight to London and therefore twice as expensive, given the distances involved.

With ‘open skies’ still in its infancy on the continent, this clearly not only affects overseas travellers but any nascent domestic tourism industry that should be showing signs of life following improved income levels.

For all the concern about making the trip to Nairobi at such a time, this was a valuable and heartening exercise.

Daniel Silke braving the streets of Nairobi withou

Daniel Silke braving the streets of Nairobi without a hard hat and bullet-proof vest.

Judging the Westgate tragedy from afar is different to being on the spot. Yes, the Kenyans are upset and yes, they remain sceptical about their political leaders and the way the crisis was handled.

But the palpable growth of Africa remains the pre-eminent message from the congress.

Perhaps for the Kenyans – and actually for many on the continent - “business as usual” for the moment will be analysing security and ameliorating the many fears of those who might consider coming to the country.

Then again, it was the same in Buenos Aires in 1994 when over 80 people died in a bomb blast, and on 9/11 in New York City.

I come away with renewed optimism -  but as the saying goes, “Africa is not for sissies”.

- Fin24

*Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.  



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