Kaleyesus Bekele profiles the first privately owned flight catering company in Ethiopia.
The first private flight catering company in Ethiopia – Addis International Catering (AIC) – was established in 2006 by Saudi- born Ethiopian billionaire, sheik Mohammed Hussein Ali Alamoudi.
AIC’s $24 million catering facility, designed to produce between 10,000 to 15,000 meals per day, was built in 2007 on 6,000sqm of land at the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport.
The three-storey building is equipped with state-of-the-art catering equipment and the company, which boasts 190 employees, also has special loading vehicles.
Tomas Jamtander, AIC chief operating officer said: “I have worked in many catering companies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia but I am privileged to work here.”
The facility is highly secure. It is well fenced with razor wire and there are security cameras all over the place. CCTV cameras monitor the entire compound.
Cargo scanning machines are in place where supplies are unloaded and only authorised personnel can open the doors inside the buildings.
Keeping everything neat and tidy is vital. “We give a very high priority to hygiene,” explained sales and customer service manager Makeda Yohannes. “Our employees undergo regular medical check ups. There are also random hand swab checks.” AIC has a number of microbiologists and a fully equipped modern laboratory.
The company’s catering facility became operational in October 2008. The first customer was KLM. Unfortunately, AIC lost this connection in April 2013 when KLM stopped its flight to Addis Ababa for commercial reasons.
AIC currently provides services for seven international airlines flying to Addis Ababa: Emirates, Qatar Airways, EgyptAir and Kenya Airways are the regular customers, while Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines and Gulf Air require occasional catering.
“Sometimes they may need extra meals and beverages. It could be for a technical reason or because of short load at their bases,” Jamtander explained. “We do not cater all the airlines coming to Addis Ababa. It depends on the proximity of their home base. If you see Saudia and Turkish Airlines, they bring their own supplies.”
AIC produces an average of 1,000 meals per day for airlines. “We operate 24 hours a deay seven days a week with three shifts. We do not turn off the lights,” Jamtander said.
AIC also provides catering services for local private airlines, such as Abyssinian Flight Service, Zemen Flying Services, Trans Nation Airways (TNA) and National Airways. The company also caters for events hosted by embassies, international organisations and private companies.
It operates bakery services for renowned local cafes and hotels, as well as snack and lunch services at international schools canteens.
In addition, AIC prepares meals for thousands of delegates for major conferences at the headquarters of the African Union and other major convention centres, such as the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).
“First we had restrictions on providing a catering service for the domestic market because our investment licence allowed us only to export our products – to deliver meals to international airlines,” explained Jamtander. “So, initially, we were prohibited from catering for embassies, international organisations and private companies in Ethiopia. We were even forbidden from selling to local private airlines. But a major breakthrough happened in June 2014, when we made amendments to our business licence. Now we are legally allowed to serve the local market.”
AIC produces up to 5,000 meals per day when there are major events in Addis Ababa.
The company also caters for VIP flights coming from around the world. It delivers food and beverage for the presidential fleets from other African countries and different parts of the world. Jamtander is proud that his company has served heads-of-state visits from India, South Korea and Japan, among others. “We also cater for VIP flights and other special flights. It can be for tourists and business people,” he added.
In addition to catering, AIC also provides aircraft interior cleaning services as a separate business.
In the global aviation industry, ground- handling companies normally do aircraft cleaning. But, when AIC started operation in 2008, it was only Ethiopian Airlines that provided ground-handling services. Jamtander saw the market opportunity and decided to fill the gap.
“Since we had the capacity – manpower, equipment and trucks – we established the aircraft cleaning division within our catering facility. The first customer to join us was Saudi Arabian Airlines in January 2010. Later on we added Emirates and Flydubai.
An AIC sister company – International Cargo and Aviation Service (ICAS), a ground-handling company, has recently become operational. We hope to have few more customers in the coming months through them,” Jamtander said.
AIC’s aircraft interior cleaning section has specially dedicated vehicles and equipment. “We have vacuum cleaners and other equipment clearly coded with colours for the lavatories, galleys and cabin. They are strictly separated,” he said.
Two years ago there was massive exodus of Ethiopians from Saudi Arabia when the Saudi Arabian Government deported more than 100,000 people to Addis Ababa. The deportations started in November 2013 and lasted until January 2014. There was up to 18 flights a day. “We did all the aircraft cleaning. We were extremely busy. Most of them were [Boeing] 747s.”
Jamtander who has been COO at AIC since its inception said: “When I first came we had only one flight every second day. We only had KLM thrice-weekly flights. Four days we did not have flights. So my focus was to find new customers and generate business. We got more customers and have consolidated the business. We established the cleaning business and got new customers. We received international awards and recognitions for our services.”
Qatar Airways started to serve the Doha-Addis Ababa route in September 2013. AIC secured the business from day one. “The first year in 2014 we were awarded the best African Caterer in Qatar Airways flight network. There were 20 catering companies in competition in Africa. That is a proud achievement,” Jamtander said.
AIC has been facing several challenges since day one. “We only began making profit in the 2014-2015 financial year after we secured the domestic sales licence and established the domestic catering service division,” he said.
There are about only 15 international airlines that have scheduled flights to Addis
Ababa. “We have a very limited market when it comes to the airline catering service.
That is why we established our domestic catering division.”
Jamtander hopes to see more international airlines coming to Ethiopia when the African open skies agreement (Yamoussoukro Declaration) is fully implemented all over Africa. “When this is implemented in Africa, I expect business to flourish,” he said.
High staff turnover is a big challenge for AIC. As many new star-rated hotels are being established in Addis Ababa, seasoned chefs and other AIC professionals are leaving. “Since our staff are highly trained they are marketable. Whenever a new hotel is opened we lose some of our best chefs. It is good for the country but, for us, finding and recruiting a skilled labour is a challenge.”
Getting a consistent high-quality product from local suppliers is another challenge. “We have to follow the airlines’ menu. But we have a challenge in the local supply chain. We import quite a lot. We import products like beef from South Africa and many other products from Europe. Our golden rule is we use local products, preferably from the local market. We encourage local producers but if we can’t find the desired quality and quantity we are forced to import. We cannot compromise quality.”
Sometimes Jamtander finds the import regulations challenging. He faces delays in imports and, at times, the introduction of new regulations is frustrating.
However, he says his work in Ethiopia is exciting. “I want to capture the international market (carriers coming to Ethiopia). But, since that has limitations, I also want to expand our local market. I want to put AIC on the top of the local catering market.”