What do Britam, Kenya Tourism Federation, Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, Strathmore Business School, MTN Business Kenya, Kenya Commercial Bank and British American Tobacco Kenya Limited all have in common? Absolutely nothing. Except that senior executives from these organizations were present in Kigali last month, more precisely on May 26th for various business reasons that were not only mutually exclusive, but it is quite likely that many of these executives never crossed each other’s paths. But they crossed my path. The serendipitous points of confluence were the Kigali airport and at the Serena Kigali where many of us were staying. Most of the executives had come in using the Pride of Africa, Kenya Airways, which is the lifeblood of business travel in the East, Central and Southern Africa region. A tiny fraction had used Rwandair, the national carrier for that beautiful nation state nestled in the bosom of the East African Community.
There is massive trading of goods and services occurring across the five East African Community members. Pivotal to that business is the travel that the business owners and their managers have to undertake to make that business happen or monitor its performance. Pivotal to that travel is Kenya Airways like the critical aorta in the East African cardiovascular system. It hit me, after saying hello so many times, that I was starting to think I was at a diluted version of the Kenyan Company of the Year Awards. Kenyans are doing business aggressively in the region and any problems facing Kenya Airways are problems that will have far reaching impact on business in the region. Board meetings will be missed, conferences will be delayed, workshops will be remiss without key trainers, performance appraisals postponed just if the airline had one daily hiccup.
So it was with the deepest regret that I told my workshop organizers in April that they had to book me on Rwandair for the May workshop that took me to Kigali. I am proudly Kenyan and fiercely loyal to Kenya Airways, so much so that I take deep umbrage whenever the airline is trashed in any gathering. The golden handcuffs called frequent flyer miles also don’t allow much in the form of adulterous predilections with competitors. You are penalized heavily via ego bruising downgrades by the Flying Blue program, of which Kenya Airways is a member, for not maintaining a rigorous flight schedule annually. I was in the tiny fraction that flew the competition simply because the anecdotal evidence of missed and delayed regional flights by our national pride were starting to take their toll on the brand’s promise of reliability. I ended up being vindicated for my decision as my colleague who chose to fly the airline did indeed have his morning flight to Kigali cancelled. It is also noteworthy that Kenya Airways is the only decently reliable airline flying to Tanzania and Uganda respectively directly from Nairobi. It therefore has a captive market well sewn up in this region.
The airline has monumental goodwill and plays an undeniably enormous role in flying the country’s flag high. As one of only four African national carriers that are of global significance (the other three being South African Airways, Ethiopian Airways and Egypt Air) Kenya Airways’ financial problems are Kenya’s problems. They merit scrutiny and concern in equal measure, if for no other reason than we cannot, as a proud nation, permit this symbol of nationalism to fly into headwinds as my media colleagues like to infer.
In November 2012, I raised an eyebrow in this column regarding the motive for the rights issue that Kenya Airways had undertaken 6 months earlier:
“The timing of the rights issue in April this year was ostensibly to raise the equity for the airline and improve its debt to equity ratios for the further leveraging the airline needs to undertake to grow its fleet for its future expansion. However, looking at the airlines’ statement in changes in equity, if the rights issue had not happened when it did, Kshs 6.2 billion would have been wiped out from the equity arising from the operating losses as well as losses from the cash flow hedges that have caught the airline on the wrong side of the very necessary derivative bet for a few years now.”
Looking at the Half Year 2014 results released by the airline, the total comprehensive loss of Kes 13.2 bn pretty much almost halved their equity to the position of Kes 15 bn from a starting position of Kes 28.2 bn at the beginning of the financial year in April 2014. Cash was down to Kes 4.5 bn at half year as well from Kes 11.2bn at the beginning of the period. The airline is burning through cash at a high rate driven by high loan and interest repayments and basic operational expenses like salaries while grappling with labor relations that are a key cause of the delayed flights across the region.
The recently announced Treasury cash bailout of Kes 4.2 billion will be swallowed within the airline’s operational bowels without the pleasure of a satisfactory burp. That will also be putting an Elastoplast over a gaping wound that needs the kind of suturing provided by a massive capital injection that will be very apparent when they release their full year results for the period ending March 2015. Some feverish calls will have to be made or are probably being made to the key shareholders GoK and KLM to pony up certainly much more than the Kes 4.2 bn that has been put in Treasury budget estimates.
If GoK can consider injecting capital into a moribund, badly mismanaged train smash of a sugar miller like Mumias, it goes without saying that an injection into the national carrier is not only inevitable, but it is imperative. If it doesn’t happen the unimaginable impact will extend beyond Kenya Airways stakeholders: It will impact how business is done in the East African region as a whole.