Henok Teferra has just become Ethiopia’s Ambassador to France, which he says is like coming home to his first love. Although he spent many years with Ethiopian Airlines, he has dedicated his life to building relationships across borders. Now he says he is moving from corporate diplomacy to government diplomacy. He sees many hopeful areas where France and Ethiopia can foster a symbiotic relationship; cultural tourism, a navy, and a malt factory. He sat down with Capital to discuss his new role and to offer his perspective from his experience working with Ethiopian Airlines. Excerpts:
Capital: Let’s begin with you, your carrier; it looks like a radical change from VP with Ethiopian Airlines to Ambassador of Ethiopia to France… But you started your carrier in Foreign Affairs. Tell us about it; how did you get here?
Henok Teferra: Radical change? I don’t know; at Ethiopian airlines one of my roles was to be the ambassador for the Airline. I handled international relations, working with government authorities and commercial corporations and their airlines, including serving as a board representative of Ethiopian on the Star Alliance Board. So I am going from corporate diplomacy in many ways to government diplomacy. I was initially working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So for me this is like going back to my first love. I worked for the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry between 2002 and 2010, mainly on multilateral and specifically on African Union related issues, advising the government and representing Ethiopia on the AU decision drafting committee for the summits. So basically I participated in every AU summit back then. It was a fantastic period in which the AU transformed from OAU. There were many issues raised into how the integration process of the new organization should proceed with the continental integration agenda. If you recall, there was controversy about moving the seats of the AU commission from Addis Ababa; I think in that respect we generally did a very good job both in driving the continent’s agenda and defending Ethiopia’s interest too. So for me, it is like coming back home.
Capital: You just left for Paris a few weeks ago; tell us what brought you back to Addis? Have you submitted your credentials already?
Henok: I traveled to Paris ten days ago and immediately upon my arrival I presented copies of my credentials to the protocol of French ministry of foreign affairs, Quai D’orsay, and I have been accepted as ambassador officially. The next step is to present my original credentials to the head of state. I am currently the functioning ambassador and my arrival here is of course because of the official visit of President Emanuel Macron to Ethiopia on 12th and 13th March.
Capital: With the new PM Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia, how do you see the Ethio-French relations evolving? How do you see your role in strengthening these relations?
Henok: I think it is a very historical time for Ethio-French relations, after the first visit of our PM to France in October and then now Macron’s visit here. There is a renewed momentum; and really, I don’t think we have seen such a level of engagement between Ethiopia and France since the time of Emperor Haile Sellassie I. There are multi-sectoral cooperation agreements in place and a very good bond that our two leaders have established; a very good personal chemistry. This excellent relationship between our very young, determined and bold leaders has created a very good potential to take the relationship to the next level.
As you may have seen last week, many agreements were signed in various sectors, one that included France’s financial assistance that aims to help the economic transition in Ethiopia. The support will be given in forms of grants and concessionary loans amounting to 100 million Euros. It is first of its kind for France, which we appreciate and value. This economic cooperation shows the confidence of France in the dynamism that has been put in place in Ethiopia to transform the economy.
Second is the defense cooperation framework agreement that was signed. This agreement includes the establishment of the Ethiopian Navy. The main ideas are modernization, training, peace keeping, logistics, equipment, and overall defense cooperation. France has a very strong and modern military which makes the deal a very big plus.
Third is heritage cooperation. As you know France is very strong in terms of cultural heritage. In fact, their number one economic driver is tourism, which is driven by heritage tourism which makes them strong experts. The visit of Macron to Lalibela shows that France is fully committed to technical and financial support for the efforts to restore Lalibela churches and the Jubilee Palace. There are also other projects in the pipeline for the national museum and national archive. France is empowering us to restore our cultural heritages. This is very important for us because Ethiopia is a very rich country in cultural and historical heritages. We Ethiopians have a unique differentiating factor in Africa because we have our history and culture which can really drive tourism. Tourism can be developed to be the major economic driver to create jobs and generate foreign currency.
Also Macron has been accompanied by many companies, as France has around 7.2 billion birr in investments in Ethiopia and we now are seeing more companies coming and investing in Ethiopia. Soufflet is one of them who want to set up a Malt factory. Meridian was also here, which is an equity investment interested in the financing of geothermal energy with an outlay of 500 million euro. Canal+ was also here to help develop Ethiopia’s cultural industry with movies in conjunction with a local partner. So, I can say the visit was very successful in establishing concrete engagements and of course in areas where we already were cooperating but which have not risen to the desired level, such as the education area, there is also a deal reached there. We will see a lot of French engagements in our universities where young and qualified French researchers will come and contribute especially in science. We have focused on the Lycee, but for a country of 110 million, it’s of course not enough. Ethiopia is the seat of the African Union and a large part of Africa is French speaking, so we have to be able to speak with our brother and sisters. So for a Pan-African vision, the French language development in Ethiopia is important. We have a special role to play as we are neither English nor French speakers; and we have a special historical role to play in bringing Africa together.
Capital: A lot has changed in a span of short months. What do you think brought these changes in terms of the relationship between France and Ethiopia?
Henock: As President Macron said at the press conference held at the Prime Minister’s Office, the arrival of Prime Minister Abiy and the policies initiatives he has taken have the support of France. France was a bit on defense I would say and the arrival of the PM with the liberalization of the economy and his initiatives to deepen democracy in Ethiopia have really gotten the attention and the interest of France. France wants to elevate our cooperation based on the positive changes that have taken place in Ethiopia. The basic meeting of minds or understanding has occurred between the two leaders. I think it is a historic opportunity which we have to utilize.
Capital: Where will the naval base be located?
Henok: What is signed now is a defense cooperation agreement on the overall support. Initial work has already been taking place; studies are being conducted. France has pledged an overall support to help the establishment of the navy force, its operation and training. This will have national and strategic significance for Ethiopia. The location of the base is not yet decided. This depends on the research.
Capital: Let’s talk about your former home Ethiopian Airlines’ last week unfortunate accident. What do you think of ET’s and other airlines decision to ground their Boeing 737 Max? What will be the implications? And how does an airline like ET survive such an accident?
Henok: First of all, I want to express my deepest sorrow and condolences to the families who are grieving, it was really tragic. The Ethiopian family is full of sorrow. I think the grounding of the 737 Max-8 is a very good decision even though we have yet to see the outcome of the investigation. There are strong similarities with the crash that happened with the Lion Air flight and questions have been raised about the aircraft and safety measures. So it is safe, wise and sound to ground the aircraft as a safety measure.
In terms of implication, Ethiopian Airlines suffered a big blow as an airline which reputes itself, rightly so, as one of the safest. But life must go on and Ethiopian airlines are continuing to fly with more than 300 flights. Despite what happened we have to be strong. Ethiopian Airlines is now more than 73 years in existence, it has seen many difficult times in the past. I am 100% sure that the airline will overcome this tragic accident and continue to fly high carrying our national color. It has very committed, dedicated and strong staff members which will continue soldiering on.
Capital: What do you think of the recent announcement of the government to partially privatize ET?
Henok: Generally speaking, liberalization is a very good initiative; we need to have companies in Ethiopia that are able to compete regionally and internationally. When you come to Ethiopian Airlines, it operates as a commercial company. It is facing international competition but its business, as it has become a group now, can be partially privatized which is already the case. You can take the logistics sector in which the airline has agreed to work in a joint venture with DHL. There are sectors within the group which are suitable for privatization; you can think of hotel business, travel and tour business and the catering business. I think privatization for Ethiopia Airlines is already there. The recent initiative of the government will make it clear for the airline to privatize some areas to attract capital or bring technical and managerial expertise. If you take the deal with the DHL it was started before the government’s decision to partially privatize. And there are areas where a joint venture would make sense, I think.
Capital: How about African governments negotiating to buy shares of the Airline?
Henok: What I have said while I was with Ethiopian airlines is that the airline is a pan-African airline not only Ethiopian national carrier. Today there are a lot of privatization initiatives in buying equity from many African national carriers for Ethiopia Airlines up to 49 percent of equity; Chad, Togo, ASKY, Guinea, Zambia Airways and many more. So it doesn’t make sense to buy shares in these airlines and say no to these countries. So from a business perspective, as Ethiopian Airline’s major market is in Africa, and ET is a Pan-African airline in its DNA from its launch in the late 1940s, but also in the 1960s when it served many African countries as their national carrier post-independence, and now with its equity share into many African airlines, it makes absolute sense for these African countries to actually get shares in Ethiopian Airlines.
Capital: As you said, ET is becoming very big; I understand you were key in setting up the ASKY group. How do you see ET evolving in the future with the liberalization of Africa’s sky? And what are the implications for ET?
Henok: ASKY is actually the first strategic partnership collaboration, set up by Busera, Chief Commercial Officer now, who is a very strong and old hand of the airlines. He deserves the credit for setting it up, I followed after him. Now at ASKY we are trying to replicate it as a group. ASKY, hotel, trading, catering and ASKY maintenance; of course with Ethiopian Airlines having an equity share in this initiative with a view to make it a solid West African hub. As you know, ASKY was launched at a time when Air Afrique collapsed and at the time many African travelers had to go through Europe to travel to their neighboring country.
So ASKY has about 23 destinations now in central and West Africa, almost all daily flights. Now their connectivity needs long flights to Europe, and the Middle East, in the second phase. The idea behind this is also people should not forget that currently the African aviation market is dominated by non-African carriers. Despite all the growth and the size of Ethiopian Airlines today, African aviation has only a 20 percent share of the African market. So the question is, are we as Africans consumers in this globalized world? How are we going to be actors and have our own African champions? So the idea of having African countries in equity participation within Ethiopian airlines is a broader vision.
Capital: Why wasn’t Ethiopian interested in Nigerian Airline?
Henok: While I was there, which was a couple of weeks ago, Ethiopian Airlines was interested in the Nigerian Market, as long as we could find a suitable partner. The Nigerian market as you know is the biggest both domestic and international.
Capital: What are your thoughts about the liberalization of the African air market?
Henock: The Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) was actually an initiative launched by Ethiopian Airlines as the Yamoussoukro Declaration decision which dates back 40 years was slow to be implemented. So Ethiopian Airlines with a number of carriers in Africa approached the AU Commission which took it as part of its flagship programs in its Agenda 2063, of creating a peaceful, prosperous and integrated Africa took this as its first project. As you know infrastructure is a very limited resource in Africa especially in trans-boundary road infrastructure. And the only infrastructure that can link Africa at present is air. So it was the previous chairperson of the commission, Madame Zuma, who took on the project and launched it. Now over 27 countries have taken the initiative and signed up and it is now going into force with the Africa Civil Aviation Commission serving as the main implementing agency. It is very important to move for the single aviation market as the continent is very fragmented. I don’t think African carriers can grow to sufficient size to be able to fight foreign competition and change the current market share dynamics into their favor, which is today 80 percent against them. So to change the market share dynamics in their favor African carriers should be able to fly in Africa freely.
If you recall the European Union launched its liberalization of skies within Europe in 1992, after that the European air transport market boomed. Of course, you should consider other things like the freedom of movement of people and goods, but the liberalization will increase the scheduled flight services, price will go down, low-cost carriers will emerge. This will mean that people who couldn’t travel by air previously may be able to afford it now. To see that in Africa would be a game changer. Personally, I think African countries can’t just grow by themselves unless they integrate. The contrary will make African airlines non-viable.
If we remain fragmented then we will be other people’s lunch. Collectively with its 1.2 billion people Africa is a huge market by itself. And I think there is a growing realization of that.