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French air catering company Servair is branching out into supplying rations to African armies in a bid to compensate for the collapse in air travel caused by Covid-19.

The company is currently discussing and testing military packs with armies, says Marc Vatel, Servair vice-president for Africa. He expects the product, which will be supplied to armies in active combat, to be available by the end of 2021.

The technology employed is adapted from one used to supply meals to astronauts on the Alpha space mission to International Space Station under an agreement with the European Space Agency. Vatel hopes the company’s reputation for precision in supply can be transferred to new military terrain.

Traceability and sanitation standards for food sold in Africa are “as high as in France,” he says. “You can’t poison a pilot or a soldier who is carrying arms… We can send rations anywhere in Africa.”

Servair, which trades on the Bourse Régionale des Valeurs Mobilières (BRVM) stock exchange in Abidjan, is present in 17 African countries and the continent contributes about 15% of sales.

The business is a subsidiary of Gategroup, which is currently undergoing a restructuring process in the UK courts. Air France is also a core shareholder, and Vatel says that Servair is “solidly supported. We are able to look to the future.”

The second quarter of 2020 was a “terrible” period for Servair as the pandemic took hold, Vatel says.

  • Sales slumped by 70% and profitability dropped to about 10% of pre-pandemic levels.
  • The 3,000 strong workforce in Africa was reduced to about 1,000 with many short-term employment contracts not being renewed.

Food on the ground

Vatel remains positive on the long-term prospects for Africa.  “Activity will progressively recover” and a return to normal business levels may be achieved in 2023 or 2024, he says.

Vatel projects a likely long-term trend towards greater segmentation in the foods that airlines will want to serve, with high-end menus becoming more ambitious and low-end food getting ever cheaper.

He also expects that selling food on the ground will become an important part of Servair’s business, even when air travel recovers.

  • Non-air sales currently account for about a third of African sales, and Vatel expects this to increase towards 50%.
  • Clients include American and French schools, hospitals, banks, miners, and oil companies on and offshore.
  • Kenya, the Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Burkina Faso are priority countries where Servair aims to ramp up non-air business, including cleaning services, he says.
  • It’s even possible that Servair could expand into countries where it has no pre-existing aerial presence, he adds.

Finding local food suppliers is a challenge. “We don’t want to import products,” Vatel says. If local suppliers are capable of producing food through industrial processes, “we are interested.” Servair will soon be introducing caviar from Madagascar on Air France flights, he says. “It has to meet norms and be traceable.”

Bottom line

Chances are you’ll be eating your next airline meal on the ground.

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