How A Little-Known Food Chemist Became The First African Female CEO Of Volkswagen & Head Of Its Newest Project

By  |  July 1, 2019

Last year, Volkswagen unveiled its first automobile assembly plant in Rwanda and launched Volkswagen Mobility Solutions Rwanda. A little-known food chemist and environmental toxicology expert was chosen to head the Rwandan operation. This is how she landed the top job.

It was the year 2016 when global automobile giant, Volkswagen, first made known its intention of making a major play for Rwanda, and from what could be gathered via the grapevines, they were looking at more than just cranking up the sales of its cars in the landlocked country.

There was nothing concrete at the time. Nothing was set in stone. It all seemed tentative at best. But somehow, things took shape eventually, though it would take another two years before Thomas Schaefer, the Chairman and Managing Director of Volkswagen Group South Africa, announced the registration of Volkswagen Mobility Solutions Rwanda and the introduction of the integrated automotive mobility solution in Rwanda.

This announcement came in January 2018 and it revealed that Volkswagen will be launching its mobility solution, including an assembly facility in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, once the year approached halfway point.

In the midst of all the excitement and fanfare that greeted the announcement in Rwanda — it was, after all, going to make the small, landlocked country only Volkswagen’s third assembly destination in Africa after South Africa and Kenya, and the mobility solutions project was as much a first for Rwanda as it was for Volkswagen worldwide — there was even more coming. And if a lot of people were taken by surprise by the initial development, what was to come next was going to shock many more.

When March 2018 came around, it brought yet more news. This time, it was revealed by the company that all the mobility services will be accessed by a custom developed app through which all bookings and payment will be made. It was also stated that services will be open to bookings online or via a hotline to cater to people who do not have a smartphone.

In essence, some USD 20 Mn had been earmarked for phase one of the integrated automotive mobility solutions in Rwanda. And the interesting bit was that the entire operation was going to be managed by one Michaella Rugwizangoga — at the time, a relatively untried hand for such a novel, high-stakes assignment.

Michaella Rugwizangoga

So how did a food chemist and environmental toxicology expert become the CEO of a first-of-its-kind automobile operation in her homeland? For starters, by basically besting everyone else who was in the running, and maybe by also having a good command of various languages including English, French, German, Spanish and Kinyarwanda. Hard to top that.

Long before Volkswagen came calling, Michaella Rugwizangoga had built up quite a reputation a young Rwandan writer, award-winning poet, spoken word artist, designer, and scientist.

Having shared her poetry on numerous stages throughout the world (including Kigali, Kaiserslautern, Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere), she co-founded “Words of the World” (#WOTW), which is an open-mic and poetry platform based in Germany and Rwanda. 

But she didn’t exactly get the VW top job by sweet-talking her way through. Michaella is quite the scholar too. Having received an excellence scholarship from the government of Rwanda, she was opportune to go for studies abroad and Germany was her choice.

While at the Technical University of Kaiserslautern, she followed up a Certificate in Business Leadership and Entrepreneurship with a Master’s Degree in Food Chemistry and Environmental Toxicology. 

Her stay in Germany also saw her co-found a civil rights and social action organisation known as Ejo-Connect; a Rwanda-German youth network aimed at fostering long-lasting partnerships between the two countries through constructive and innovative projects.

Upon the completion of her Master’s programme, she returned to Rwanda where she spent the next few years honing her skills in strategic planning, project management, and product development.

This work experience came on the backs of stints at various organisations including the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), Village Group and the Imbuto Foundation (an NGO set up by Rwanda’s First Lady, Jeannette Kagame Nyiramongi).

Apparently, her efforts caught the eye of the folks at Volkswagen AG and when it was time to head-hunt for the position of CEO for the company’s new operation in Rwanda, she was drafted in amongst several other candidates, albeit as a wild card.

What followed was a barrage of tests. Michaella held her own all through. It was during a final interview with six of the company’s top directors that she was asked to head Volkswagen Mobility Solutions. A daunting task, no doubt, but one she accepted and has grown into nonetheless.

“I always had in mind that I wanted to build things and I am really passionate about Africa,” she tells CNN. “I think the message Rwandans have for the world is that there is always a tomorrow. It’s always about being resilient, being strong.”

Michaella Rugwizangoga officially joined the Volkswagen Group in April 2018 as CEO of Volkswagen Mobility Solutions Rwanda. It was a fairytale finish that saw her become the first African woman CEO within the group.

Under her management, Volkswagen cars are being put together in an assembly plant in Rwanda and shipped to other countries.

Like the small operation in Kenya, the USD 20 Mn which the company pumped into the assembly plant in Rwanda is obviously dwarfed by the USD 489 Mn poured into modernizing the Uitenhage Polo plant in South Africa in 2015 — and this is a massive factory that produces 120,000 cars annually. But even as the Rwandan operation seems modest, the mobility solutions project is quite the catch.

It’s a clever move given that it’s hard to see the average Rwandan parting with USD 30 K for a Passat or a Teramont (per-capita income in Rwanda is USD 702.00). Hence, the “Mobility Solutions Rwanda” project, which is at the heart of the USD 20 Mn operation, and which is a lot like a ridesharing scheme.

Under the scheme, Volkswagen will own all the cars and hire drivers. The project will include drivers who will operate 300 vehicles for the public-sharing and ride-hailing services. Volkswagen reckons that it will profit from the fact that most Rwandans cannot afford their own cars.

Further, unlike in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, global ridesharing companies such as Uber have yet to reach Rwanda. Volkswagen wants to take advantage of that. And with Michaella calling the shots, it sure looks like they could pull it off.

Michaella Rugwizangoga is a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and an active member of the Kigali Hub since 2014. She is part of the “Africa50”; a pool of 50 Global Shapers who were selected to attend the World Economic Forum on Africa (AF16) back in 2016.

She is also a member of the “Davos50“ and spoke on matters related to youth, leadership, and development at the World Economic Forum 2017 in Davos, Switzerland. In just a little over a year since taking one of the top jobs at Volkswagen, it looks like she’s already making things happen.

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