Providing flexible aviation solutions



Formed at the turn of the millennium, the Solenta Group is a diversified aviation company based in Johannesburg, which serves a number of various commercial sectors primarily across Africa, but also beyond the continent. Initially founded to provide aviation support for DHL’s ventures in Africa, the Solenta Group has maintained this area of its business whilst gradually expanding its fleet and capacity, which has allowed the firm to proliferate into other business opportunities across the continent.


Solenta Group’s African business has subsequently expanded into several areas including the resources sector (where it works with oil majors such as ExxonMobil), tourism, air freight and humanitarian aid, often partnering with organisations such as the United Nations, the Red Cross and the World Food Programme.


“Overall, it’s been a picture of growth in numbers of aircraft, capacity and also geographical spread,” says Solenta’s business development manager Michael Adams.


The business has grown from operating a modest fleet of predominantly Cessna Caravan’s and Beechcraft 1900’s during its early years, to introducing its first jets to the fleet from the Embraer ERJ 145 family.


Today the Solenta Group is fast approaching the milestone of owning 100 aircraft within its fleet. However, along with the progressive enhancing of its continental fleet, the firm has also expanded in terms of capacity of its aircraft.


For example, the Solenta Group has moved from supporting DHL in providing ATR 42 model aircrafts between a 4-5 tonnes payload capacity, to ATR 72’s with a payload capacity between 7-8 tonnes from its own large cargo facility in Toulouse, France.


The subsequent growth of the business has sufficiently buttressed DHL as it expands into more countries on the African continent, with the ongoing development of the Solenta Group’s fleet, capacity and global presence an underlying theme within the company’s recent history.


Business structure


The Solenta Group is split into two key areas, with the first, Solenta Aviation being the operating side of the business and the second, ACIA Aero Leasing being its aircraft leasing services.


The operating side of the business constitutes around half of the Solenta Group’s total fleet, operating across a number of strategic locations across Africa but also all over the world including Cuba, Asia and the Middle East.


“We essentially provide aircraft with flight crew, cabin crew and maintenance support,” proclaims Adams.


“Therefore, we go a lot further than simply providing an aircraft or an engineer, it’s about the logistics of procurement and shipment of aircraft components to support the day-to-day operations of our customers.”


Training organisation


In addition to these core operations, Solenta Aviation also possesses its own South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) approved training organisation, which is primarily based at the firm’s head office in Johannesburg.


Solenta Aviation’s training organisation provides key preparatory exercises for flight crew, cabin crew and for aircraft maintenance engineers, which are offered to both internal employees and external clients.


“One of the key facilities utilised by members of our flight crew training programme is a 6-base flight simulator, where we also communicate all of our safety procedural checks.”


These safety measures include emergency procedures training, crew resource management, aviation security and several other procedures which contribute towards Solenta Aviation’s stringent safety standards and regulations.


Prospective cabin crew members are also put through a similar safety regime across Solenta Aviation’s operating bases via the firm’s own trainers, or alternatively through reputable external cabin crew training organisations.


For Solenta Aviation’s students of aircraft maintenance engineering, most company training is conducted at its head office in Johannesburg, which has a number of specialised classroom facilities.


Flexible Aviation solutions


The Solenta Group prides itself on providing ‘flexible aviation solutions’, an aspiration which has taken on more and more importance as the firm has developed its business towards serving several diverse industries across Africa and beyond.


“[Providing flexible aviation solutions] means listening to the customer and learning what their specific requirements are, especially as we’ve found ourselves getting into larger aircraft and therefore leaping up the ladder in terms of the size and infrastructural demands of our clients.”


As a consequence of working with a number of different companies from multinational oil majors to humanitarian aid-focused NGOs, the Solenta Group has had to make sure it responds adequately to the differing requirements of its clients.


For example, an increasing trend in recent years has involved the Solenta Group’s clients often not requiring a full ACMI service, as companies wish to utilise their own cabin crews. Sometimes firms even go a step further and provide their own flight crew along with a cabin crew, which has necessitated a subtle change in approach.


The Solenta Group’s commitment to maintaining a flexible approach to its aviation services has seen the firm transition from initially providing full ACMI services only, towards a mixture of wet lease and dry lease scenarios.


In such dry lease scenarios, the Solenta Group liaises with its client to provide an aviation service to the exact specification it requires, based on the client’s request to use its own cabin or flight crew.


“In these cases, it’s about being flexible, listening, understanding what the requirement is and structuring a contract to meet that specific requirement,” says Adams.


The establishment of a number of operational bases across the continent, where the Solenta Group holds Air Operator Certificates (AOCs) has also strengthened the firm’s ability to provide flexible aviation solutions to its clients.


The Solenta Group currently holds AOCs in eight countries across Africa from Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique in the East, Zimbabwe and South Africa in the South, Gabon and the Ivory Coast along the West coast and Algeria, (through joint venture with a local partner) in the North of the continent.


These national aviation approval certificates ensure that the Solenta Group’s clients gain a smooth entry platform into these destinations. Solenta’s operational bases have been particularly useful to DHL as it navigates its business across Africa.


“Our operational bases mean that we can provide DHL with a single source of aircraft over multiple countries, rather than having to deal with individual operators in each separate country.


“This gives all the benefits of having single points of contact for a company like DHL that requires multi-country support.”


Continuing expansion


Looking towards the future of the Solenta Group, Adams reiterates the company’s ambition to continue growing its fleet and capacity in order to better serve its current customers and partners across several industries.


In particular, the Solenta Group is looking towards expanding into full ownership of Embraer E190 aircraft models, which has driven a recent Solenta Group shareholder investment into AIM-listed airline, Fastjet.


The Solenta Group acquired a 28% stake in the African low-cost carrier as part of a $48 million equity deal, which was completed in January 2017.


Furthermore, the Solenta Group has also recently signed a two-year partnership with StandardAero, who will provide a range of Maintenance, Repair and Operations (MRO) services to the Solenta Group’s growing fleet.


With these recent developments set to pave the way for the further expansion and upgrading of the Solenta Group’s fleet, the firm is also looking to expand its customer base on not only a continental level, but also a global level across several areas of business including humanitarian aid and the oil and gas industry.


“We’re looking to secure support of more scheduled airlines, which involves providing aircraft on lease to scheduled airlines around the world.


“We also want to continue growing our support for DHL across other regions of the world where we are negotiating with local operators to provide them with aircraft that they will then operate for DHL in their regions.”


This is reflected in the Solenta Group’s rudimentary presence in countries such as Senegal, Mali, Nigeria and DR Congo, along with countries in the Middle East including Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, where the Solenta Group holds strategic alliances with or have AOC’s currently in progress.


“Our aim is basically just to expand on what we are doing now into more parts of the world, with a broader customer base, working with more oil and gas companies and with larger and newer aircraft.”