Blaze at Kenya airport reminder of fragility

Blaze at Kenya airport reminder of fragility

A fire at Kenya’s and East Africa’s major airport could significantly hit the tourism sector highlighting the fragility in Kenya’s economy.

The fire that ravaged Jomo Kenyetta International Airport (JKIA) on 7 August 2013 was more than just an unfortunate mishap. While it claimed no lives, the damage inflicted upon the Kenyan economy is substantial to say the least. The airport based in Nairobi is the biggest in the country, one of the busiest in all of Sub-Saharan Africa, and the facilitator for a number of Kenya’s key economic drivers.

The fire lasted over five hours and brought all passenger and cargo flights to a grinding halt. The international flights terminal was burnt to the ground, which could not have happened at a worse time during peak holiday season for Kenya. Being the most popular airport linking East Africa with Europe, JKIA acts as the gateway for a major source of income for the economy.

According Kenya’s Tourism Board the sector accounts for about 10 percent of GDP. The airport will use interim measures such as tents, which have been pitched to house passengers. However, even a small deviation from the normal capacity of the airport (which is about 8 million passengers per year) will have a substantial domino effect, not just for tourism in Kenya but for the entire region.

The other key driver in the Kenyan economy is exports, particularly perishable goods, such as flowers. Last year Kenyan exports totalled $6.285 billion, with about 9 percent of that revenue belonging to the flower industry, making Kenya the largest African supplier to Europe. When asked what the fire at JKIA will do to flower exports, the CEO of the Kenyan Flower Committee responded, “this is a disaster.

The economic consequences of the fire at JKIA highlight the precariousness of Kenya’s promising economy. It indicates how, in the midst of economic progression, a natural disaster or an unfortunate accident can bring everything to a halt, such as the tourist trade and a growing export industry. Contingency plans are not in place, even for the lifeline of an economy such as JKIA in the case of Kenya. Many African states still lack infrastructure and a focus on risk management, which according to the witnesses of the fire at JKIA, was non-existent. In addition to not preparing for unforeseen disasters to the economy, the mechanism for responding to an emergency is still in dire need of improvement.

Horrified travellers witnessed the fire blaze for two hours before fire fighters could even reach the scene due to the traffic jams in Nairobi, which prevented their speedy response. While emergency services made their way to the airport – albeit at an extremely slow pace – witnesses reported watching airport security attempt to put out the fire with buckets of water. When the fire fighters finally arrived and began putting out the flames, they soon became dangerously low in their supply of water. There were no escape routes in the airport nor any directions given by airport staff, leaving passengers to run chaotically in search of an exit.

Considering the millions of passengers and thousands of cargo planes that travel through Nairobi every year and the fact that the airport acts as an impetus for the Kenyan economy, it is troubling that adequate preparations had not been made in the event of a fire. That there were no deaths is the only saving grace of the situation. However, the fire should act as a stark reminder, that a country’s economy is fragile and subject to unforeseen circumstances and external factors. Making contingency plans and creating improved response systems to protect the factors, which drive the economy and protect human life is fundamental. Disasters are bound to happen, but it is how they are dealt with that determines the future.

About Author

Elizabeth Matsangou

Elizabeth works as International Account Manager for an environmental technologies company and has previously worked for a political consultancy company in Westminster and for Intelligence Squared, a forum for live debates. She received a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Essex and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics.