Business travel in Africa during Covid-19: CEO shares his experiences

Jean Craven in Dakar, Senegal

Jean Craven in Dakar, Senegal.

Covid-19 test certificates. Screening forms. Masks. Social distancing. Quarantine.

Since the advent of the pandemic, travelling has become much more complicated. For many companies in Africa, however, business travel remains a necessity and the challenges must simply be navigated. South African based Jean Craven, co-founder and CEO of Barak Fund Management, still needs to visit his clients and he has made several trips since last year July. The company – which provides asset-backed loans to entrepreneurs in Africa – has more than 120 clients across 25 countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. Jeanette Clark spoke to him about his experiences travelling in Africa during the pandemic.

When did you start travelling again?

As soon as travel became a possibility, we got out there. I enjoy face-to-face interaction with my clients. They are typically entrepreneurs or large family businesses in sectors such as energy, mining, agriculture and fast-moving consumer goods. I’ve always believed face-to-face with a client is worth 10 phone calls and one phone call is worth 10 emails. It saves a lot of time which is one of the biggest impacts of Covid-19 in my opinion: the additional time it takes to turn business around, especially new business.

When and where was your first trip?

One of my first trips was during South Africa’s stage 4 lockdown, in July last year. Commercial flights weren’t yet available but I had some urgent business in the UK, where we have an office. With difficulty, I managed to get out of the country on an urgent business application and travelled onboard an SAA repatriation flight via Frankfurt. Many of the Covid-19 protocols weren’t yet in place. In Europe, you could move about quite easily, where today it is almost a no-go.

Subsequently, in September 2020, I went to Tanzania. Again, commercial flights weren’t fully operational. On the back of another business application, I got into the country on a repatriation flight and out on another. Prior to the unfortunate passing of President Magufuli, Tanzania was quite oblivious to the pandemic. There weren’t many measures in place and travelling was fairly easy.

At the beginning of March 2021, I spent two days with two of our clients in Kenya, this time on a commercial flight, and two weeks later, I travelled to Senegal to see another client. Travel in Africa is happening as long as you are willing to go along with the strict protocols.

Describe the pandemic admin you encountered in the countries and on the commercial flights.

I used Kenya Airways for my trip to Kenya and Ethiopian Airlines for Senegal, with a stop in Addis and a hop in Bamako, Mali. For these commercial flights, the procedures are clearly laid out. The only real hassle is the testing. The challenge is to understand where and how testing works in each country.

If you want to do multi-country flights, having a Covid-19 certificate that lasts for those 48, 72 or 96 hours (depending on each country) is challenging and you may have to take multiple tests en route.

Results that come out 48 hours after the test are not efficient; you need a testing centre where it can happen in 24 or even 12 hours. These facilities are available but you have to do your homework. I visited Senegal, a majority Muslim country, on a Friday and they were closed for prayers. I had to wait for them to re-open; small details like that are important. If you can locate testing facilities that are not too busy, it helps a lot. At the first testing facility I visited in Dakar, near my hotel, I was number 150 or so in the queue. I drove an hour out of Dakar to another testing facility where the queue was much shorter.

Negotiating traffic in Nairobi, Kenya.

Negotiating traffic in Nairobi, Kenya.

How do you handle the fluidity in rules?

The rules are not homogenous across different countries. If possible, verify the requirements with someone in that country. We have clients or associates and trade partners whom I can contact to check the information I receive – even from the travel agent – is accurate.

How has the pandemic influenced the day-to-day operations when you were in these countries for business?

Sanitising is prevalent in all three of the countries I have visited, particularly in the hotels and airports. In Tanzania, masks were not a requirement last year, but with the passing of their president, they are moving in that direction. Access through airports and using taxis is all fairly normal.

In some countries, like Senegal, you now need a special invitation for business travel.

The biggest hassle factor is you are going to have to set aside three hours in your schedule while in these countries to get a Covid-19 certificate which means you have to cut short your hours to meet with business associates. If you are used to meeting clients all day, now you have another new “client” that is taking up three hours of your time.

Have you seen any obvious signs of the impact of the pandemic on the business environment in the countries you have travelled to?

Tourism has been heavily impacted all over. I spent the weekend at a national park in Senegal and I was the only guest at the lodge the entire weekend. The tourism sector is suffering.

The frequency of flights is a lot less which means a drop in the volume of people moving through airports. European business travel and tourism seem to be almost non-existent.

When you look at the day-to-day activities in the countries I visited, things look normal but Covid-19 has affected every single business. One of our clients is a logistics operator that does work with cross-border freight. That has become so onerous for the truck drivers as they must have a valid negative Covid-19 test certificate for both ways, every time.

People are now more comfortable with online meetings and it is projected there will be significantly less business travel going forward. Do you anticipate doing fewer business trips than you used to?

Before the pandemic, I would simply hop on an aeroplane if I needed to see someone and perhaps some of that business could have been done via Zoom or telephone call. I think businesspeople will become more selective with travel. I still don’t believe anything can replace face-to-face contact when it comes to new business on the continent. Zoom cannot beat getting to know a client over lunch. Business travel will decrease but it will continue.