Out of Africa: liberation through the skies

Last Thursday morning, I flew from Tamale to Accra, Ghana on a 45-seat prop plane. The flight took barely more than an hour, and spared me a ten-hour car ride. Tamale is the most important city in Ghanaâ''s largely-Muslim north, and the air service is relatively new. Antrak flies daily; it is one of two commercial carriers.

The opening of Ghanaâ''s north through the skies does not resolve the continuing troubles with basic roads between Accra and points north. The very same awful road that links Accra to Kumasi continues further north to Tamale. If Tamale is to become the breadbasket for more-urbanized southern Ghana, the road to Kumasi must be greatly improved. But air service provides an important boost â'' and not only for people. Fresh mangoes are making the plane trip from Tamale to Accra as well.

Some of the mangoes get eaten by prosperous urban elites, while the remainder move onto another airplane â'' this one traveling to Europe.

Air service from Accra to Tamale remains an experiment. All seats were filled when I flew on Monday to Tamale. Only one seat was empty on my return trip. At 175 dollars per flight (or $350 roundtrip), air travel to Tamale is well beyond the means of ordinary Ghanaians. Yet while the service needs elite customers to survive and thrive.

There are wider lessons here for aviation technology and African development. These are early days but over time, regional air travel could solve one of Africaâ''s most vexing problems: how to move people and goods, quickly and economically, over vast distances.

Skeptics abound, citing relatively low demand -- and low purchasing power -- from African consumers. I have written elsewhere about the potential of aviation to liberate African travelers, drawing parallels with the mobile-phone revolution in the region.

"Just as the mobile phone bypassed the vastly expensive challenge of upgrading dysfunctional African land-line systems," I wrote in the January issue of The Wilson Quarterly, "a big push into rural-based aviation, aimed at moving crops from the bush to African cities and beyond, would leapfrog the problem of bad roads."

One commentator called my suggestion "certifiably insane," which may mean that aviation holds more promise than many presume.

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