It was only a few years ago when African air cargo had a poor reputation with many airfreight companies using old aircraft and flying under the regulatory radar. Since then, all has changed.

Where once old former military freighters were the rule, Boeing 777s operated by Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s largest cargo operator, now fly the African skies.

In March, Ethiopian added Ahmedabad as its fifth cargo gateway in India. The move is to link the Indian sub-continent and Africa further with China and Hong Kong. “We will offer the Indian market with minimum import capacity of 240 tonnes per week,” said chief executive Tewolde GebreMariam.

China and India’s hunger for natural resources and commodities, and Africa’s thirst for consumer goods have seen Asia-Africa air freight surge. Several other Asian countries, as well as carriers, have joined the gold rush.

Data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) shows that freight tonne kilometres (FTKs) on the Africa to Asia (mainly China and India) trade lane jumped by 30% in 2016 year-on-year and by 57% in January 2017.

Sources: IATA Economics, IATA Monthly Statistics by Route

Sources: IATA Economics, IATA Monthly Statistics by Route

And Boeing, in its 2016-2017 forecast, said growth in African air trade with Asia would be driven principally by Asian imports into the continent. Follow-on investment by China in extractive industries in Africa, and continuing urbanisation and rising demand for consumer goods in Africa, are expected to make Asia-Africa air trade grow by 6.5% per year while Africa-Asia growth will be slower at 5% per year.

Europe accounts for nearly 60 percent of African cargo and commands the majority of Africa’s international air trade largely because of its proximity and longstanding historical and investment ties.

Two prominent factors continue to complicate estimating the size of this market, according to the Boeing forecast. First, trade lanes that include both sea and air, principally via airports in the United Arab Emirates, offer the possibility of lower cost transportation between Africa and Asia. As a result, a great deal of Asian cargo arrives in Africa as airfreight from the Middle East. Second, a lot of air cargo from Asia arrives as the excess baggage of small traders who import goods for sale in Africa.

Asia-Africa trade has been growing exponentially in the past decade with more Asian countries boosting their investment in Africa following China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative, according to a research report by the Standard Chartered Bank.

Trade between Asia and Africa, however, is not without its challenges. Red tape and poor infrastructure make it difficult to invest in Africa, but as ties between Africa and Asian governments strengthen, long-term business prospects will improve, said the bank.