At the time of the launch of the two daily flights to Juba in June 2010, Kenya Airways MD and CEO Dr Titus Naikuni, said: “Juba has become one of the important economic hubs of Southern Sudan and Africa.
“Kenya Airways is synonymous with contributing to sustainable development across Africa and we envisage providing a seamless connection of service to all passengers travelling in and out of Juba for business and development opportunities,” he added.
Vice-president of Southern Sudan, Dr Riek Machar, said: “The launching of flights to Southern Sudan by the airline marked an important milestone for us as it will help connect our region with the rest of Africa as well as the international network that Kenya Airways serves.”
In the weeks leading up to the referendum and since it kicked off on 9 January 2011, the airline has experienced a vast increase in the number of passengers flying from Nairobi to Juba.
The route usually records an average of 5 800 passengers a month, but this has now grown to more than 8 000 – a figure that is expected to last until the results of the referendum are announced in February.
The Kenyan national carrier said while its occupancy rate had been at 60% since it entered the market with the new route, “business to Juba is now brisk with near full flights”.
Other airlines that have experienced a similar increase in their passenger numbers for the Juba route are Jetlink, Astral Aviation and Fly 540.
“Aviation transport is a key element in the enhancement of trade and I believe that the introduction of these regular flights will enhance the trading activity between us,” Kenya’s Minister of Trade, Amos Kimunya, said at the time of the launch.
With Kenya and Southern Sudan sharing a border, there has also been talk of establishing a railway link between the two countries.
The link will mean that most of the goods from Kenya’s port in Mombasa will be able to go directly to Southern Sudan without bypassing Uganda, which is the current trade route. The proposed new development is called the Rift Valley Railways concession.
"Kenya has always had a special relationship with Southern Sudan. Besides being a guarantor of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, it has been a neighbour which has hosted a large population of Sudanese refugees and given them a platform to access the rest of the world," said International Centre for Policy and Conflict executive director Ndung’u Wainaina.
“As East Africa’s economic powerhouse, Kenya stands to benefit from the emergence of a large new market in South Sudan and major infrastructure that the country will need to engage commercially with the world, including oil exportation,” the International Crisis Group added.
Asian powers keen to invest in Southern Sudan include Japan and China.
With the Sudanese referendum ending on 15 January 2011, attendance at polling stations has already surpassed the 60% mark.
The predicted outcome of the vote will see the north and south regions splitting and an autonomous Southern Sudan emerging as a new state on the continent.
The referendum follows the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, which ended a two-decades-long war between the mostly Muslim north and Christian south.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has vowed to recognise Southern Sudan as an independent state if the outcome of the vote suggests such.
On a recent visit to the south, al-Bashir said: “"Imposing unity by force doesn't work ... We want unity between the north and the south, but this doesn't mean opposing the desire of the southern citizen.”
The Carter Centre, established by former US president Jimmy Carter, and the African Union have sent officials to Southern Sudan to promote a peaceful and credible vote.
Other recent high-profile visitors to the region have been former South African president Thabo Mbeki and Hollywood actor George Clooney, who has launched a hi-tech project to monitor the situation there