Rwanda, often likened to the ‘Singapore of Africa’ due to its strides in economic growth, governance efficiency and urban planning, has made steady progress in the construction of a new airport aimed at bolstering its ambition to be a regional aviation hub. With the US$2bn Bugesera International Airport, expected to open in 2026, Rwanda seeks to take advantage of its central location within Africa, mirroring the strategic advantage of Singapore's Changi International.
Located 40km south of the capital Kigali, the airport will feature a 130,000m2 main terminal building, designed to handle up to 7m passengers per annum, with a further phase for 14m passengers expected to start by 2032. Furthermore, a separate cargo terminal will be situated nearby, designed with the capacity to manage 150,000 tonnes of goods per year.
Bugesera will become the headquarters of the country’s flag carrier, RwandAir, which plans to double its fleet of 13 aircraft over the next five years. RwandAir currently operates over two dozen destinations in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
The new facility has become essential due to the constraints of the existing Kigali International Airport, which was originally designed to accommodate 400,000 passengers per year. Prior to the pandemic, this airport was serving nearly one million passengers. Due to its geographical limitations – being situated atop a small hill and encircled by residential areas – it lacks room for expansion. While the current airport will continue to operate for special arrivals, select chartered flights, and a pilot training school, a larger, more capable airport has become necessary to sustain Rwanda's growth ambitions.
Qatar Airways has taken 60% stake in the airport and is also in the process of acquiring a 49% stake in RwandAir. This builds upon their strengthened relationship from 2021, when a comprehensive codeshare agreement was signed. Earlier this year, Qatar Airways also introduced its first cargo hub outside Qatar at the existing Kigali International Airport, a venture in partnership with RwandAir.
Jules Ndenga, CEO of Aviation Travel and Logistics Holding, the government-owned entity supervising the airport's construction, said Bugesera is envisioned to solidify Rwanda's position as an African transit hub for tourism, business, and other activities. The new airport will compete with Ethiopian Airlines and its Addis Ababa hub. Ethiopian Airlines, currently serving over 60 cities, holds the leading position in Africa and transported more than 7.053m passengers in 2021.
According to the African Airlines Association (AFRAA), in March 2023, African carriers had reached 94.8% of their 2019 passenger traffic volume. AFRAA anticipates that the total passenger count for airlines will hit 85m by the end of 2023, roughly 10m shy of 2019's full-year passenger traffic. The total number of intercontinental routes operated by African airlines has been surpassing pre-Covid levels since October 2022. Furthermore, eight African airports – Johannesburg, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Lusaka, Cairo, Casablanca, Abidjan, and Lomé – have either reached or exceeded pre-Covid levels of intra-Africa connectivity since December 2022.
In 2022, the total revenue loss for all African airlines combined was $3.5bn. 2023 is seeing a steady narrowing of the airline revenue deficit but a lack of direct air connection between African countries is hampering the untapped potential of the aviation sector in Africa. Despite boasting 16.75% of the world’s population with 1.4 billion people, African flag carriers take up less than 4% of the African aviation market, which is dominated mostly by airlines originating out of the Middle East.
Attempts have been made to turn the African aviation sector into a single common market but only 35 of the 55 African states have signed up for the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) agreement, thus far.
‘Rwanda - New Bugesera international airport in Bugesera - ESIA Summary’, African Development Bank, 08 March 2018
‘Qatar to take 60% stake in Rwanda's new international airport’, Government of the Republic of Rwanda, 09 December 2019
‘RwandAir and Qatar Airways seal milestone codeshare agreement’, RwandAir, 05 October 2021
‘RwandAir positions Kigali as regional aviation hub’, The EastAfrican, 11 December 2022
‘African airlines’ performance updates by AFRAA – March 2023’, African Airlines Association, 12 April 2023
‘Rwandair starts its first-ever direct flight to Paris’, African Airlines Association, 18 April 2023
‘Qatar Airways Cargo launches Kigali Africa Hub in partnership with RwandAir’, Qatar Airways Cargo, 03 May 2023
‘The $2 billion Rwandan airport that could help African aviation take off’, CNN, 05 May 2023