There’s no better place to take a photograph of Rosette Chantal Rugamba than on the terrace of the landmark Hotel des Mille Collines by Kempinski in Kigali. It’s easy getting permission for this from the hotel’s management. Rugamba is well-known here and a regular.
The hotel affords a 360-degree view of the city and its splendorous rolling hills. Rugamba, in an orange suit and necklace, views the twinkling lights of Kigali and takes a deep breath of the crisp night air. She has had much to do with this vision of the city.
Twelve years ago, she was appointed Rwanda’s tourism head by the country’s president Paul Kagame tasked with turning around the country’s tourism infrastructure.
She had never lived in Rwanda before that. Her parents had fled the country to Uganda in 1959 and she grew up as a refugee with her seven siblings. Her parents never let them forget they were Rwandan first. The children were encouraged to learn French and culturally attuned to their country’s traditions. Be it books, music or dance, their home reverberated with Rwandan nuances, as the family lived on hope they would one day return home.
Her father was a brewer and her mother a teacher, but their humble home was always open to fellow Rwandans.
“There was always plenty of food,” recalls Rugamba. “And if you had to roll out a hundred mattresses, so be it.”
As her parents’ first-born, there was pressure on her to perform – and excel. She studied political science at university in Uganda. She married Henry, an Ugandan, and thereafter moved to London. Her husband worked for the British telecom industry, while she started her career with Harrods as a customer services manager. Today, she lauds herself for having been among the team that launched the first Harrods store at Terminal 3 in Heathrow airport. Yet another milestone: she was “among the 100 people” who started Eurostar.
“I am the sort of person who always wants to start things,” says Rugamba. Although she was settling well in the United Kingdom, in her heart, she recalled the songs of Rwanda, the songs of its flowing rivers and rolling hills.
In 1984, she decided to “risk a trip” to Rwanda, which was still in the throes of the liberation struggle.
“I wanted to experience the country and so toured it for the first time. I was satisfied but not sure if I would ever see it again.”
In 1996, Rugamba joined British Airways as its sales and marketing manager for East Africa, and she subsequently moved to Uganda. Rwanda’s horrific 1994 genocide was still fresh on her mind.
“We used to do a lot of fund-raising for the people and the soldiers. My mom’s family was completely wiped out.”
In 2002, she received a call from Kagame, asking her to return to her homeland. At the time, things looked positive for Rwanda.
“I asked myself ‘what value can I add?’. I am eternally grateful to the President that he unleashed the potential I never knew I had.”
Kagame wanted her to raise Rwanda’s profile through tourism and turn it into an engine for economic change in the country.
“The brief I got from him was ‘make sure every tourism dollar is spent in the country’,” says Rugamba.
When she took over as the Director General of Tourism and National Parks in January 2003, she was six months pregnant and a newcomer in her own homeland.
“The tasks in front of me were huge. I was coming back to a country I had never lived in and tasked with tourism in a country that had never known it. I felt like a tourist in my own country,” she says.
Yet, she embarked on the job with passion.
“The country was embedded in me. I was so excited that for the first time I was given a Rwandan passport, the one given to government officials but one that came with responsibility. It actually meant I was now a part of the transformation of the country.”
It also came with personal sacrifice – for a while. She came to Rwanda leaving her family behind in Uganda.
“My husband said ‘you go, we will be fine, you are getting a chance to serve your country, we can manage’. Women can’t do it without the support of men,” says Rugamba.
The first thing she did on the job was getting on the radio every Sunday at 3PM, talking about the country’s tourism potential and the role Rwandans would play.
“Tourism is multi-faceted and for it to succeed, the masses needed to be involved. We had to get the coffee, tea and ICT sectors as well to support it.”
Her mandate was to grow the tourism numbers, build restaurants and hotels, and offer tourists local handicrafts and every reason to visit Rwanda.
“Rwandans are very patriotic and they linked [tourism] to the visionary leader they loved so much. Until then, everyone only knew Rwanda for the 2Gs: the genocide and gorillas. It was time to showcase whatever else Rwanda had to offer.”
Tasked with reinvigorating tourism in the ‘Land of the Thousand Hills’, for the next seven years, Rugamba reoriented the sector putting in place new policies and strategic master plans. She launched the country internationally with a new pitch: ‘Rwanda – the new dawn of Africa’.
“I was so determined to sell the vision. I went to the [East Africa] region, gathered the tour operators and brought them here. The target was high-end eco-tourism.”
Eugene Rutagarama, who as the Country Director of IGCP (International Gorilla Conservation Programme) worked closely with Rugamba for eight years, extols her ability to tackle problems and take a stand on tough issues.
“Rosette Rugamba is an energetic person, an inspiring leader to her peers and to any person who happens to know her well. I was always impressed by her innovative approach to complex situations and her strong desire to reach a high level of accomplishment,” he recalls.
In time, her efforts paid off.
By the time Rugamba stepped down in 2010, tourism had become Rwanda’s top foreign-exchange earner. The tourism master plan for Rwanda’s Vision 2020 had been laid out, and the country was a stand-alone destination in the East African bloc.
In 2003, when she took on the job, tourist numbers in Rwanda were a mere 13,000. When she left in 2010, that figure had risen to 790,000.
In 2013, Rwanda had 1,137,000 visitors and tourism generated $293.6 million. The number of hotel rooms in the country has risen to 8,417. It was 650 when Rugamba started in 2003. To accommodate the demand, the current airport has recently been expanded and a new airport is being built in Bugasera.
It was time for Rugamba to find a new challenge.
“I saw what tourism could do for Rwanda. I wanted to do the same for Africa. My vision is to go everywhere,” she says.
She chose to turn entrepreneur, starting Songa Africa, a luxury tour company focusing on sustainable tourism.
“There was room for an indigenous luxury tour company headed by a woman. I had the passion, local knowledge and appreciation of the luxury clientele. I started with an old laptop and a contact book, but with a vision.”
In March, her company completes five years. She admits to having international celebrities, presidents, film stars and media moguls as clients. She has been consistently recognized as one of East Africa’s leading tourism and conservation strategists.
“What happened to me is magical,” she says.
Rugamba’s company is launching its first custom-built luxury eco-lodge in March and will be rolling out three five-star lodges to the tune of $5.5 million. Her company is also getting into conference tourism in line with Rwanda’s strategy to position itself as a business destination.
All this has meant extensive travel for Rugamba.
“Oh my goodness! I have hardly been in the country these last three months,” she says. But wherever she goes, all roads lead her back home to Rwanda.