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How the Jerusalema Challenge Helped Boost Morale at Madagascar’s New Airports During COVID-19

What if you built a new airport, and nobody came?

That’s what happened to the island nation of Madagascar. Ravinala Airports S.A., a French consortium, finished remodeling not one, but two, airports in March 2020, just as COVID-19 brought air travel almost to a halt.

But the airport workers were resourceful, and they found a way to stay busy and to keep their gleaming new airports in the public eye until the pandemic passes: They took the Jerusalema Challenge and dazzled the world.

If, somehow, you haven’t heard of the Jerusalema Challenge, it’s an ad hoc dance competition, held on the internet. People all over the world record themselves doing the steps, then upload the video onto social media, challenging family, friends, and co-workers to do it better, or bigger.

The craze started when a small group of friends in Angola filmed themselves dancing to the song Jerusalema, written by South African DJ Master KG and performed by Nomcebo Zikode. A group in Portugal followed, and after that, #JerusalemaDanceChallenge went viral.

 

For their version, the 1,000 workers at the airport in Antananarivo, the capital, donned their uniforms and danced the Jerusalema steps inside and outside the gleaming new building. Teams from the taxi stand to the control tower and everywhere in between, including food service and security, danced in small groups and all together, waving flags, pushing luggage carts, and spraying water from fire engines. The production included shots from a drone. “As soon as the borders open, we will be ready to welcome you,” the video says near the end.

It was worth the effort. Their Challenge video has gotten more than four million views across all social media platforms, showing off the airport to potential visitors around the world.

The Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) helped build the new airport by insuring investors in the project for up to $85 million against political risks.

Christophe White

We spoke with Christophe Lavallee, Director of Administration and Finance at Ravinala Airports, the company that runs the airport at Antananarivo and another at the resort island of Nosy Be (where workers made their own video in February) about how things are going, and how the Jerusalema Challenge helped everyone get through tough times.

 

Pandemic aside, when were you planning to open?

The project started in 2015, we were supposed to open in April 2020. Then, the crisis happened, and we had this brand-new terminal ready to operate, and nobody to put inside, which was a little bit frustrating.

How did workers react?

We've been continuing to work because, although there are no operations, there is still maintenance work to do. It’s a tough time for everybody because you work, and you work, but the ultimate objective of this terminal is to have passengers enjoying the new infrastructure. And we had no passengers!

Gathering all the various groups together to dance—flight attendants, taxi drivers, restaurant workers, security personnel—gave us a sense of community.
Christophe Lavallee

How did the Jerusalema Challenge help? You could feel it. Morale was going down because the airport couldn’t open. Gathering all the various groups together to dance—flight attendants, taxi drivers, restaurant workers, security personnel—gave us a sense of community. We talked to all the third parties, and everybody was very happy to participate. We had a coach who helped people with the choreography, and, in the end, it really helped showcase the airports. People didn’t know about them. In the videos, people all over the world see all the work we did. And, most importantly, the Challenge brought us hope and joy at an important moment.

Why did Madagascar need to refurbish its airports?

The airport at Antananarivo is the front door to the country. Because it’s an island, almost everybody who comes to Madagascar sees the airport first. And there was lots of frustration because the old airport had a capacity of 550,000 passengers per year, but more than 800,000 arrived. You can imagine how crowded it was. People took 10-hour flights from France, and then spent two hours getting out of the airport. It was very bad for Madagascar’s image.

What percentage of passengers are tourists?

About 40 percent. The other 60% is mainly business and the diaspora from Madagascar, because you have a lot of nationals who moved to France.

Where do the tourists come from?

Mostly from France, but you have a lot of Italians, also. The main tourism spot is Nosy Be. Today, you must be a bit more adventurous to come to Madagascar instead of Mauritius and La Réunion. Our region is called the Vanilla Islands. La Réunion had 2.6 million passengers in 2019. Mauritius had 3.9 million. In Antananarivo, we had 1.1 million. Nosy Be is a much smaller airport. There we had 230,000. But the potential for Madagascar is huge. It’s the same size as France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, combined, but the small islands of Mauritius and La Réunion have three times as much tourism.

What was most challenging about the renovation?

We organized the airport differently to speed arrivals, and to that, we had to mobilize all the workers to perform in a new environment. We had to manage the change and involve all the stakeholders in the project. People at the airports are used to having a lot of small jobs: carrying bags, driving taxis. We didn’t want to compromise this small economy. We wanted to make it more efficient with thoughtful changes. For example, we put in a central counter where people meet with helpers to carry bags and get taxies.

How are you managing with the pandemic?

Financially, it is difficult. We have very low revenue. We are lucky to have the support of all stakeholders, including sponsors, financial partners, and the government. Our main objective is to protect the workers. We’ve managed to keep everybody, and we’ve managed to pay everybody. But it’s tough for people to be idle. It's important for people to work and, at the end of the day, to be tired because you did a good job.