Akagera Aviation Robinson Helicopters R44. Photo courtesy of Akagera
Rwanda has shifted to a higher gear and is now speeding to entrench itself as a growing tourism and investment destination within the region. Rising from the ashes of the devastating 1994 genocide, the nation today is making headlines for all the right reasons, like establishing a domestic helicopter services company.
The country is not only courting regional and international businesses to open up shop within its borders, but also is actively supporting local businesses to grow and expand. One of the home-grown companies that has over the period benefited from this policy is Akagera Aviation, the first and only helicopter company operating in Rwanda.
Founded in 2004, the company has grown in leaps and bounds thanks to a favorable business climate and a vision to offer competitive aviation services locally with an eye for the region.
Akagera Managing Director Patrick Nkulikiyimfura noted that the company was formed to plug a gap in Rwanda’s aviation sector, as there was no existing helicopter company that would offer flight services and allied services before then.
“Principally, we are not only an aviation company offering helicopter flight and maintenance services, but we are also a training center for helicopter and fixed-wing pilots,” he said. “We are currently training pilots for our national carrier RwandAir as well as the Rwandan Air Force. We see opportunities in this segment of our business as RwandAir is rapidly expanding and needs more pilots.”
RwandaAir expects to need an additional 200 pilots within the next five years, and Akagera wants to train the majority of them, he said.
“Moreover, when we look across the region, we witness a growing need for more pilots as our neighbors in Uganda and Tanzania seek to operate their own national carriers,” Nkulikiyimfura added.
Akagera since 2010 has diversified its portfolio of service offerings from flight services and pilot training to include aerial survey, aerial photography and medical evacuations. It is currently the only Rwandan-based company that is offering these services.
Joseph Ndayishimye, the company’s director of flight operations, noted there are currently tremendous opportunities for growth in the nascent aviation sector in Rwanda and the larger Central Africa region, especially in training and maintenance services.
“We are currently the sole dealer and maintenance facility in the East and Central Africa region for Robinson helicopters,” Ndayishimye said. “We continue to build capacity in the maintenance section of our operations. We are currently offering maintenance support to other organizations based in Uganda and Tanzania.”
In recent years, Akagera has boosted its roster of Rwandan instructors where in the past it was almost entirely reliant on instructors from South Africa and elsewhere, according to Ndayishimye. It is now the only accredited helicopter training facility in the entire East and Central Africa region, he said.
The school’s first student pilot graduated in 2011. It has since trained 50 more helicopter pilots. Currently, 30 pilots are in training — 10 affiliated with the Rwanda Air Force and 20 with RwandaAir, he said.
“We have developed a total of six pilot training instructors and eight maintenance engineers and we seek to add more of them as we continue to expand and train more students,” Ndayishimye said. “Our vision is to transform this into a center of excellence for helicopter training in Africa. … Africa will need in excess of 16,000 pilots in the next 15 to 20 years. Our desire at the moment is to create a world-class pilot training center for both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft in Africa. We have created a training manual and have also acquired a flight simulator for this purpose.”
Akagera Aviation operates nine helicopters, three of which were acquired in 2018. These include five Robinson R44 Raven IIs and three Leonardo helicopters: an AW109, two AW119s and an AW139. The company is using the R44 for training and the Leonardos mostly for VIP transportation and medical evacuations.
“The Augustas are excellent aircraft that we have added to our growing fleet. They are, however, more expensive to maintain and operate as compared to the Robinson, but are serving us very well when it comes to VIP transportation within Rwanda, especially in the ever-expanding tourism industry,” said Ndayishimye.
Rwanda has over the last couple of years shifted its tourism focus toward attracting high-end tourists who tend to spend more during their travels. With costs starting from $5,000 per flight hour, the Leonardo fleet underlines Rwanda’s vision for a high-end tourism destination, explained Ndayishimye.
The newly acquired Leonardo 119s will also be used for emergency air evacuations within and outside Rwanda. This is a new service that the company has introduced to tap into the growing tourism industry in Rwanda and the region.
“As Rwanda sits on a high-altitude level, we found it worthwhile to offer this service to local and regional tour operators whose clients might need to be evacuated due to the high altitude while tracking mountain gorillas in the Volcanoes National Park,” said Nkulikiyimfura.
To underline the importance that the Rwandan government has placed on the aviation sector, it has set up a holding company that brings together players from the tourism, aviation and logistics industries of which RwandAir and Akagera Aviation are a part. This falls in line with the government’s vision of transforming Kigali into a logistical hub within the Central Africa region. The government is constructing a new international airport about five nautical miles from the current Kigali International Airport.
“The new airport will be a game changer for the aviation and logistics sectors in Rwanda,” Nkulikiyimfura said. “There is no room for expansion at the current airport, and we have to try to fit in to the commercial operations of the airport as we conduct our training. However, we would be pleased to operate our own dedicated training facility for both our helicopter and fixed-wing pilots in Rwanda. This is our vision for the next 10 years as such a facility would place us in a class of our own in Africa, and we would be able to attract students from across Africa. We also intend to bring in additional simulators to enhance our training.”
Denis Gathanju is a freelance aviation journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya, and Kigali, Rwanda.