Yvonne Manzi Makolo joined RwandaAir 1.5 years ago and became its CEO in April. She talked with Lee Ann Shay at the International Aviation Women’s Association conference about the airline’s growth and being one of 17 female airline CEOs in the world. RwandAir started operating in 2002 (as Rwandair Express), is based in Kigali, and flies to 26 cities in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Europe.
What is your fleet’s composition and what are your expansion plans?
We have 12 aircraft and we’ll be acquiring four more next year—two Airbus A330neos and two Boeing 737 MAX 8s. We’ll close to double our fleet over the next five years. Right now we have a mixed fleet that we’re trying to rationalize. We operate an A330-200 and an -300, six 737 NGs, two Q400s and two CRJs.
We need the Q400s for regional routes and one domestic route that has a very short runway—so we’re looking at phasing out the CRJs, which also fly regional flights, so we’ll have three types.
We came to realize that we needed to rationalize to save costs. We’re buying services from three MROs: Lufthansa Technik for the Airbus fleet, Ethiopian Airlines for the Boeings and Q400 and Samco Aircraft Maintenance for the CRJs. In terms of pilots and crew, a mixed fleet also makes it more complicated so it will be helpful to get rid of one type.
Are you happy with your maintenance providers?
Yes, but we eventually want to do our own maintenance from a long-term perspective. All of the maintenance is currently outsourced. The maintenance companies have some engineers on the ground in Kigali, but the heavy checks are done in their hangars.
As we grow our fleet, there will be a need to carry out maintenance inhouse.
We’re still in the initial phases and we’re exploring whether it will be a joint venture or something else. I think the decision has been made to do to it: What we’re exploring now is which model we want to use, and then we’ll map out the time frame to implement it.
It sounds like an exciting time as the airline grows. What are the challenges and opportunities?
One of the main challenges is finding and retaining crew, especially pilots—which is a challenge around the world. We have 150 pilots, 35 of which are local—the rest are expatriates. We only have five female pilots, so there’s an opportunity to encourage more women to enter aviation. It’s the same with engineers. Because of this and the fast growth of our airline, we decided to build the local capacity for pilots and technicians/engineers. One of our sister companies started an aviation academy and is now training cadet pilots.
Increasing fuel costs is a big challenge that is affecting us and other airlines, too. In addition, getting traffic rights for some countries is a challenge.
Given the young population on the continent and within the country, there is lots of opportunity. Almost 60% of the demographic is under 25. A lot of countries realize the importance of aviation so there is lots of good will to build the sector, so we are seeing a shift. There is a huge opportunity in cargo as well, especially for RwandAir as we move toward more widebodies. The export industry in Rwanda is growing—we’re exporting a lot of flowers to Brussels, fruits and vegetables to the UK and other countries. Cargo revenue is almost doubling year over year and we expect to see more of that as we increase our capacity.
Only 17 airline CEOs in the world are female. Does that make it difficult?
It’s a challenge number one, because it is a very male dominated industry, but it’s also interesting because I have found that since starting my job, I’ve met many people who are very willing to help whenever I reach out. That is something that surprised me a bit because I thought it would be more of a strictly boys club. That has been one of the positive things. For me, more than that, being in this position shows that anything is possible for women. The industry is tough, but you can do it. I know a lot people say that you can’t have it all, and maybe you can’t, but you can try. You juggle it and make sure you have a strong support system around you. It is possible. Nothing is impossible for us. Be clear in your mind what you want to do and then go for it.
Your airline is expanding, as is Rwanda’s economy.
The country has come so far from where it was at the genocide 24 years ago. It’s a completely different place. We have a fantastic president and government. People are clear on the country’s vision and what needs to be done to achieve that vision. People rally around that. You feel it. You feel that energy in the country—that we need to catch up. When I see that statistic of 17 female airline CEOs, it’s shocking to me because I come from a country where women are very empowered.
We have the highest representation in parliament—61% are women. Fifty percent of the cabinet are females and we have many females in the C suite of companies and in the judiciary. Everywhere you look around, you see women in power, so the IATA CEO statistic is shocking. I think Rwanda really stands out in empowering women.
Rwanda’s economy is growing 7% year over year. The government has identified aviation as a key tool for the growth of the economy—it’s a strategic pillar and we’ve seen the impact of that from just a few years ago when the primary foreign exchange was coffee and tea. Now it’s tourism. Kigali is now number three in hosting international conferences in Africa after Cape Town and Morocco.
Coming from nowhere to number three for hosting huge conferences, such as the World Economic Forum for Africa, Kigali is really on the map because there have been concentrated efforts to develop infrastructure. It takes a vision and people rallying around that vision to accomplish it. Rwanda has come a long way and it will be exciting to see where it goes in the next few years because the momentum is still going. It is an exciting time to be living in Rwanda. It encourages you to keep pushing.