First, allow me to warmly welcome you to Rwanda. We are happy to host you and thank you for choosing our country for this event.

I also wish to commend the African Union for the continued support and the progress made towards achieving the Single African Air Transport Market.

The Covid-19 pandemic, nevertheless, has negatively impacted the aviation sector globally, and Africa is no exception.

In fact, the pandemic continues to affect us all. One simple example is the recent case of this variant, the Omicron variant, and the confusion it has brought everywhere, including in air transport.

I am saying this because you have seen South Africa was generous in sharing information of what they had just discovered about this variant. And all of a sudden, of course, there is a reaction towards that. Airlines started suspending flights to the southern African part of our continent, with passengers originating from there and going towards different parts of the world being blocked, and a lot of questions.

In the midst of that, first it was said that the origin of it was southern Africa or South Africa. Then, as that is happening and people are taking action and so on, information also comes out that, by the way, this virus has been around in some other parts of the world, even before South Africa let us know that they had discovered this virus.

This requires better organization, better communication, and concerted efforts in doing what we are doing. But unfortunately, the speed at which things are happening, as related to the effects of the pandemic, is staggering.

In the case of Rwanda, when we learned of this variant, like any other country, we had to take immediate action. We had to figure out what to do in response to that, because of other actions other people were taking.

Our airline had to suspend flights to the southern African region of our continent, as the information everybody was operating on was that this variant was in southern Africa. But we find it is also somewhere else.

In fact, I agree — I saw the President of South Africa saying that South Africa, for example, was being punished for being transparent and putting information out there about what they had discovered. But others who had identified it had been quiet and had discovered it before.

In our case, Rwanda had to take measures internally, here in the country, but naturally also to do with beyond our borders.

The simple reason was, for example — with the flights that come from southern Africa — most of the passengers who come to Kigali, don’t terminate their journey in Kigali, in Rwanda. The majority are going through to other destinations.

There was going to be an economic backlash if we just went to southern Africa. First of all, we would not be bringing passengers because passengers normally come through here to other destinations, so they would not be coming. We might be able to carry passengers to southern Africa, originating from here, but on the way back, flights would almost be empty every time. It wouldn’t make economic sense. In fact, we would probably make huge losses around that.

One of the measures we took was to say: Let’s wait and see what happens across the world, let’s stop flying to southern Africa.

But I am raising this because of the need we are emphasizing for us to keep finding ways we can be better coordinated in action and minimize the sort of discomfort or inconveniences or even loss that is incurred, so that each country, each airline, does not do whatever they think is suitable only for themselves, but rather, if better coordinated, seeing how we affect each other and maybe improve our actions on that.

Let me go back to why we are here. I was just stressing the way the pandemic has really created chaos and how we need to work hard, together, to manage this.

The liberalization of air transport can help with the sustainable recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic effects while facilitating the operation of the African Continental Free Trade Area.

Allow me to make a few suggestions, on steps to fast-track the development of a single air transport market on our continent.

First, investment in infrastructure is very critical.

Rwanda’s aviation industry continues to see considerable growth, particularly with the increase in capacity of RwandAir and the construction of the upcoming and new international airport.

These investments support connectivity within Africa and complement Rwanda’s decision to remove visa requirements for fellow Africans, as we have made it easy for other travelers from outside of our continent.

Second, affordability should be at the forefront of our strategy. The aviation sector should not be overtaxed and overburdened with charges compared to other sectors. After all, we want to encourage our citizens to travel within our continent.

Lastly, innovation is key for sustainability. Digital processes should be adopted to manage travel health credentials. In the long run, this will minimize airport disruptions and increase confidence in safety.

As we work towards fully opening our skies, the adoption of the dispute settlement mechanism should be a priority. This will help create the impetus for more countries to liberalize their bilateral air services agreements.

To sustain the gains already made, the continent’s favourable demographics can be leveraged. This means, above all, investing in our people and creating the necessary skills to help them take advantage of the wider social and economic benefits that this market offers.

To close, I would like to express my appreciation to the African Civil Aviation Commission for the work you have been doing. Your commitment, coupled with the collaboration of regional and international partners, will make the civil aviation industry more resilient, and contribute to the continent’s development.

Thank you again for gathering here in our capital, Kigali. I hope you will continue to enjoy your stay and work here. You are free to take time and enjoy what our capital, our country, have to offer.

You are most welcome. I thank you for your kind attention.