After two years at Brussels Airlines' head office, I had the opportunity to set off for Africa. It didn't take me too long to decide, my thirst for discovery and adventure, and the great opportunity from a professional perspective, were enough to convince me.
Donatien d’Hoop de Synghem, General Director of Brussels Airlines in Guinea.
Brussels Airlines is an airline based in Belgium. In addition to its European network, the airline is renowned for its long-haul network to Africa.
Guinea is one of the most fragile countries in West Africa, and was heavily affected by the Ebola epidemic. As well as providing humanitarian assistance, Brussels Airlines serves as an economic link with the rest of the world.
I then needed to convince my partner, Antoinette, who could get involved as a vet to help local people. It's a wonderful adventure we are sharing together. We have sometimes experienced difficult situations (a widespread internet outage for a whole week at the office, no running water for several days, rainwater inside the bedroom, etc.) but have also met some wonderful people.
A developing country
Guinea is a surprising and unknown country, which is full of potential and where everything seems possible, even though the country is considered to be one of "hardship": we don't have the comforts we are used to in Europe. But that is also the speciality and experience of Brussels Airlines. Africa is our second home, and even though the comforts are not the same, Guineans are extremely hospitable people. The fact of working in such a unique country allows you to learn a lot from a professional perspective, but also from a personal one.
When you go to a country like Guinea, you need to put aside your European vision, believing that everything works the same as it does back home. You need to re-examine your expectations and constantly adapt, exercise flexibility. Whether my planning is daily or weekly, I hardly ever get to the end. You constantly get interrupted, you need to manage problems or unexpected situations. As a country manager for Brussels Airlines, my activities are very diverse. It can happen that I have to meet customers in the morning, discuss the presence of birds on the tarmac with the airport authorities in the afternoon, and take part in an official or diplomatic reception in the evening.
Guinea is a surprising and unknown country, which is full of potential and where everything seems possible, even though the country is considered to be one of "hardship"
A difficult crisis: Ebola
The first signs of the spread of the Ebola epidemic appeared in April 2014. In collaboration with Doctors without Borders (MSF) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), Brussels Airlines closely monitored the situation. In crises such as these, transparent communication is essential to maintain the trust of all parties. A risk assessment was made every day so as not to put our passengers or flight crew in danger, but we couldn't abandon the countries affected by Ebola. We therefore continued to serve Sierra Leone, Liberia and of course Guinea, by adapting our procedures to minimise the risks. Africa is part of the DNA of Brussels Airlines, which has a good reputation there. It was a question of taking our humanitarian responsibilities and trying to solve the problem. In January 2015, we transported the first vaccines to the affected countries, which was extremely poignant for us and for the memories of Guineans.
As well as providing humanitarian aid so that countries could cope, Brussels Airlines was the company which continued to connect the "Ebola" countries with the rest of the world. Ebola affected 3 countries in West Africa, but in the eyes of the general public, Ebola was everywhere in Africa. We therefore launched the "Africa is not Ebola" campaign to underline the fact that Africa is an enormous continent with huge disparity between countries, and a multitude of different ethnicities.
A risk assessment was made every day so as not to put our passengers or flight crew in danger, but we couldn't abandon the countries affected by Ebola. We therefore continued to serve Sierra Leone, Liberia and of course Guinea, by adapting our procedures to minimise the risks.
Cooperation and development
The links between Brussels Airlines and the Belgian diplomatic corps are very strong in Guinea, which facilitates our cooperation with Guineans. An airline is a bridge which connects a country with the rest of the world. This is even more so for a country like Guinea where there aren't as many airlines as there are in Europe. Brussels Airlines serves as an economic link between Guinea and the rest of the world. We assist in the tourist development of the country by being a partner of the Guinean National Tourist Office, and by actively participating in different economic forums. We also try to promote Guinean know-how, and we help wherever we can. This assistance may be visible, when we are the official partner for events such as "Conakry World Book Capital", or it may receive less media coverage, such as when we provide books and clothes to orphanages.
Guinea is a country which is gradually emerging from the Ebola crisis: economic activity is picking up, and various economic actors and cooperations are returning. For example, Belgium has recently made Guinea a partner of the Belgian Development Cooperation.