Rwanda's aviation sector has come of age. Besides the growing number of airlines that fly out of the Kigali International Airport (commonly known as Kanombe), the sector has embraced modern aviation operations to promote safety.
These and other developments have jolted the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority (RCAA) and government into action to cater for this growth and take the industry to the next level. The airport upgrades at Kanombe and up-country airfields explains the importance attached to the emerging sector. However, the need to improve the country's capacity to handle more passengers, cargo and aircraft remains.
Dr Richard Masozera, the director general of the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority (RCAA), says the expansion programme seeks to reposition the airport, enabling it to handle the growing pressure.
Currently, there are more than 10 commercial airlines that serve Kigali International Airport, including the national carrier, RwandAir, Kenya Airlines, Qatar, Turkish Airlines, Ethiopia Airlines and KLM.
According to Masozera, more airlines have expressed interest in operating flights to and from of Kigali, including Fly Dubai, a low-cost airline expected to start its flights soon.
That's why it is important for the government to invest heavily in the aviation industry to make KIA more attractive to global airlines, according to industry experts. "For instance, ground and air traffic control facilities, as well as modern security systems need to be enhanced to ensure the sector is safe and more efficient," they say.
"There is also need for bigger and longer runways, sufficient parking space and more terminals to make Kigali International Airport (KIA) more competitive."
So what is the aviation authority doing to address these and other challenges like the skills gap?
So far, Masozera is confident that the ongoing $17 million expansion programme at the Kigali International Airport will help ease pressure on the airport, and improve cargo and passenger handling.
The project, expected to be completed this month, will see terminal gates increase from current two to six gates, he says.
He adds the airport runway could also be expanded from the current 3.5km to 4.2km in the near future.
"This will make it easy for airport authorities to handle the growing number of passengers and cargo entering the country," Masozera points out.
RCCA will also soon commission expansion works at Kamembe airstrip, with the upgrade project expected to take eight-months, Masozera notes.
"We will sign the airfield development deal with the contractor in the coming weeks. The idea is to increase Kamembe airfield runway from 1.5km to 2.2km so that it can accommodate bigger aircraft."
The government last week announced it would issue a $1 billion Eurobond early next year to fund the construction of Bugesera International Airport, among other projects. This will come as a huge boost to the industry and the country's tourism and service sectors. Already, the government is handling the compensation process and other encumbrances to pave way for the construction phase.
"It is important that we sustain infrastructure development, train more personnel to provide quality service by the industry locally," Masozera notes.
Rwanda's efforts to make more attractive to investors were recently boosted by the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) initiative to integrate airspace among member states. The project has already secured about $10 million (about Rwf8 billion) funding from African Development Bank.
Rwanda will head the initiative that is expected to establish a robust legal and institutional framework, as well as accelerate the integration of airspace infrastructure development in the Comesa region.
Industry watchers say this and other regional programmes will go a long way in buttressing efforts of the local aviation authority aimed at making Rwanda and the regional aviation sector more attractive and reduce the cost of air transport for Rwandans and other travellers.
This, when achieved, could make the targeted 1.5 million passengers annually through KIA a reality in the coming years, according to Masozera.
Presently, over 600,000 passengers pass through Kigali International Airport per year.
Masozera projects the number of flight frequencies to more than double from 400 per week to more than 1,000 in the near future.
Also, the East African Community (EAC) governments are planning to invest more than $1.7 billion to expand their airport infrastructure in the next three years to be able to handle the growing demand for air transport.
"Aviation has become a critical cog that drives entire economies of the region in terms of exports, tourism and general trade. Therefore, there is no doubt that investing in aviation is critical for economic development," Andrew Luzze, East African Business Council executive director, says.
Other pulling factors:
Rwanda has resources, as well as trade and investment opportunities that the outside world can benefit from.
Pauline Kariuki, the country manager for Kenya Airways, Air France and KLM, says that the country's conducive business environment is a key driver for investments into the aviation sector.
"Rwanda's aviation industry is growing in terms of linking Kigali with the rest of the world; and this has attracted a lot of traffic from all over the world," she says.
John Mirenge, the RwandAir chief executive officer, attributes the growth of the sector to government strategy for an industry and services-led economy, especially focusing on the tourism, financial services and information technology (IT) sectors.
"The aviation sector is growing significantly in Africa and Rwanda should not miss out. RwandAir's plan is to continue linking the country with other parts of the world. This will facilitate the private sector to do more business, especially the export trade, as well as make the country more accessible," he says.
The national carrier currently operates 15 domestic, regional and continental routes.
The aviation business is relatively still young and growing across the region, presenting a great opportunity for the private sector to invest in the sector, Tony Barigye, the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority communications manager, says.
He notes that the expansion programme presents businesses opportunities in the financial service, hospitality and cargo handling.
Despite the positive trend the aviation industry is witnessing, the issues of low capacity and the high cost of operation out of KIA still pose major challenges to the sector.
On the issue of the skills gap, Masozera says the government is training more aviation personnel to grow the local pool of qualified pilots, aviation engineers, and ground operations personnel.
He says the authority is also working with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and regional bodies to address challenges that affect the sector in the region.
All these are great initiatives that should take the sector to another level when fully implemented. However, more needs to be done to attract more private sector players into aviation-related services if it is to grow holistically.