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Branson vision for Virgin Nigeria

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Branson started flying to Lagos back in 2001 with Virgin Atlantic.

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Richard Branson

LONDON, England (CNN) -- This week, Virgin Nigeria, the nation's flag carrier, commences operations with its inaugural flight to London.

The airline is a joint venture, 51 per cent held by Nigerian institutional investors and 49 per cent by Virgin Atlantic.

Virgin Nigeria hopes to capitalize on the lucrative Lagos to London route with offers of low-cost flights.

Business travel is on the rise to West Africa, with promises of new oil sources as prices ride high, while Nigeria is already a significant producer.

Virgin Atlantic CEO Richard Branson told CNN's Mathew Chance that the new African airline he is heavily involved in is not strictly about business.

Branson: It is important that the company is more than just a company, so that it gives back to the community as well. We hope that the expatriates we have sent down there will put themselves out of business, and we can train local Nigerians -- this is a Nigerian airline.

The exciting thing is that Africans are trying to get their own house in order. They need help and it is up to people from overseas to help support them in that effort and sort out basic infrastructure, national airlines and telecommunications. Without this Africa will stay as it is.

Chance: What specific problems have you encountered trying to do business in Africa?

Branson: The problems in setting up Virgin Atlantic have not been more difficult than setting up Virgin Atlantic in Australia. What you should not do is what African airlines have done in the past -- get the oldest planes and work everything on the lowest common denominator. We have to make sure that this is the best airline in the world -- better than Singapore Airlines and better than Virgin Atlantic -- that is what we are going to strive to give them.

Chance: But a lack of infrastructure can dilute that, right?

Branson: Certainly there are problems with airports, where the quality is weak. It is up to us to lobby in order to get change. Nigeria has an incredible Minister of Finance and she is a brilliant lady. At the same time, there are 130 million mouths to feed, so there is a balancing act there. We have said what infrastructure we need and we have said we will help create it.

Chance: You make it sound so easy and straightforward to do business in Africa. If that is the case then why aren't other companies flocking there?

Branson: I think it is sad that more companies have not invested in Africa. If they had done this many years ago Africa would be a thriving continent. If businesses can put aside some of their money and invest in Africa, it need not cost them money, they can make a small return and it would make a big difference.

Chance: Do you think people will be watching your business to see if you can pull it off?

Branson: I saw our Virgin Nigeria plane in its full livery at Gatwick and it made me feel really good, and when Nigerians see it next week, they will feel good too. We will make it a success and hopefully it will start a trend.

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