RwandAir spreads its wings under new CEO

by Andreas Spaeth
February 13, 2019
Rwandair Africa fresh
Photo: Andreas Spaeth

RwandAir is poised to become one of Africa’s rare aviation success stories.

Turkish Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines and the Gulf carriers have demonstrated what’s possible if a country’s government and the national airline work hand in hand.

This is the blueprint for the tiny Central African nation of Rwanda, home to a population of 12 million and less than half the size of Tasmania.

Rwanda has been developing at a fast pace recently with annual GDP growth of over 7 percent. The country is an important stepping-stone for global multinationals like Volkswagen, which operates a state-of-the-art car factory here and tests new mobility concepts as well.

RwandAir chief executive Yvonne Makolo has the popular, recently launched Mobi app with the VW logo on her cell-phone. Makolo, 44, is the new fresh face of African aviation.

The former head of a telecommunications company has worked for the state-owned airline since 2017, initially as deputy CEO and as CEO from April 2018.

Whenever she appears at an international airline conference she is in the limelight.

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“That’s because I am one of the few females in the industry, it shouldn’t be the case, it should be normal, but the industry has yet some way to go,” asserts Makolo in an exclusive interview with AirlineRatings recently on the sidelines of the CAPA conference in Doha.

“Women need to be given an opportunity as well, and we need to encourage more young people to join the industry and give women a chance to show their potential in the industry.”

RwandAir CEO spreads wings
RwandAir CEO Yvonne Makolo. Photo: Andreas Spaeth

Her personal experience as a female newcomer to aviation has been good.

“So far for me, it’s been very positive, I received a lot of support from my shareholder and from other airline CEOs. I haven’t encountered any negative resistance or push from anybody, I’m grateful for that.”

It is Makolo’s task to develop the airline, founded in 2009 in its present form, to become a network carrier acting globally.

Currently, it operates twelve aircraft, among them two Airbus A330s delivered in 2016 as well as six Boeing 737-700s and -800s.

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Last year, the airline transported about 1.2 million passengers on routes serving 23 destinations, mostly within Africa but also three times weekly (in peak times four and soon increasing to five a week) to both London-Gatwick and Brussels.

“Despite Brussels Airlines being based there and also serving Kigali, it is Brussels where there is the biggest Rwandan diaspora in Europe lives, also of other Central African countries, so Brussels is our most obvious European destination”, explains Makolo.

Since its re-start in 2009, RwandAir has never been profitable.

“We are looking at breakeven and long-term profitability, as we are in the investment phase right now,” says the CEO.

Similar to Turkey or Ethiopia, for Rwanda the national airline is a tool of soft power to advance the country as a whole, besides being instrumental for the local economy.

“We are more than a pillar for the economy of the country. The airline is an enabler for the economy, and tourism has recently become our number one foreign exchange earner”, notes Makolo.

Photo: Andreas Spaeth

Rwanda has much to offer to the visitor with varied landscapes, good infrastructure and of course the mountain gorillas being the highlight. The fee for one of the highly regulated, coveted day permits to encounter the Silverbacks has risen to $US1,500.

“Rwanda is one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies and our passenger numbers are growing even faster than that in double digits,” Makolo adds.

But even in its home market, RwandAir is a small player, as the country pursues an Open Skies policy, an exception in Africa, and six big global airlines are flying to Kigali.

“It’s good for the country, competition is good”, insists the CEO.

Embracing foreign competition is equally an exception in Africa. On paper, the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATAM) has been endorsed by over 23 states but in fact, nothing much is moving forward.

“We exploit the little African liberalization there is as much as we can”, says Makolo.

RwandAir has been successful with a handful of fifth freedom routes within Africa, such as the one from Kigali via Harare in Zimbabwe to Cape Town in South Africa.

Rwanda has high-flying aspirations in aviation. Currently, Portuguese companies are building the new Bugesera International Airport, supposed to replace the inadequate city airport in Kigali.

Nobody believes the official opening set for 2020 will become reality, as works are not far advanced as of yet.

But already this year RwandAir is increasing its total capacity by a whopping one third.

Photo: Andreas Spaeth.

The delivery of the first A330neo is imminent with the second due to arrive mid-year. Also the two Boeing 737 MAX 8s ordered will join the fleet this year.

So the announcement of new routes is imminent as well, one being Guangzhou in China.

There are plans for further European destinations, but  Makolo refuses to hint where they might be.

“We are also looking for routes to the US but that is a long process. We will serve the US probably via a stop in West Africa and hope to get traffic rights from there to the  US, we are in discussions with different countries,” she reveals.

This is very much emulating the strategy Ethiopian Airlines has pursued successfully.

“By the end of 2019, we will operate 16 aircraft, which is a lot for us. But we need it to facilitate our growth,’’ says Makolo.

The sky doesn’t seem to have limits currently in Rwanda.