Zhibin Zhou, a mechanics worker in Gabon, is flying to China for his annual vacation back to his hometown, Yancheng, a city about 3.5 hours from Shanghai by car. He works in Libreville—Gabon’s capital—for a quarry owned by a businessman who is also from Yancheng. Every year, Zhou gets one month off to visit his family back home. He’s taking a direct flight from Addis Ababa to Shanghai following his arrival from Libreville.
Ethiopian Airlines has only flown from Addis Ababa to Shanghai since 2014. When Zhou first came to Gabon in 2011, he boarded a flight in Beijing, flew to New Delhi, then Addis Ababa, then Douala in Cameroon, before taking the last leg to Libreville.
Times have changed. On an average day, eight direct flights operate between China and African nations, a huge increase from less than a decade ago: In 2010, airlines averaged less than one flight a day.
The expansion of air traffic between the African continent and China coincides with a period of rapid expansion of Chinese investment. Chinese firms have been voraciously bidding on and winning infrastructure projects in Africa.
Chinese firms have helped build airports in Kenya, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, Togo, Sierra Leone, among others in recent years.
The Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, where Zhou’s flight took off, serves the most passengers today flying from Africa to China. A new terminal tripled the airport’s capacity when it opened this year. It was funded and built by China for $363 million.
As money flows, so do people. The airline fleets operating between China and Africa are now capable of carrying about 850,000 passengers annually.
Most of the expansion is driven by Ethiopian Airlines. It didn’t have a single Africa-China direct route in 2010. Now, it operates almost half of the 2,616 annual flights. It has more than doubled the size of its fleet in the last decade and become the largest airline operator in Africa.
Chinese travelers comprise its largest group of customers, according to Ethiopian’s spokesman Asrat Begashaw. The airline flies daily to Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, and three times a week to Chengdu. It announced plans to add three more Chinese destinations.
Ethiopian wasn’t the first to try tapping the Chinese market for growth. Kenya Airways started a route between Guangzhou, China and Nairobi, Kenya in 2013 and dropped it in 2015; South African Airways had one route between Johannesburg and Beijing from 2013 to 2015; Air Algeria has kept the same capacity over the last decade; EgyptAir kept about the same number of flights to Beijing and expanded its services to Guangzhou.
Whether it be investment in airports or in planes, China and Ethiopian Airlines are both betting that air traffic on the continent will grow rapidly. It’s easy to see why. The African industry only accounted for 2.2% of the global air travel in 2018.