I was born and raised in Tanzania, and my passion for aviation started at a small airport in Kigoma, by the shores of Lake Tanganyika. When I was four years old, my parents and my younger siblings flew to Dar es Salaam, leaving me behind to stay with my grandmother. As the plane carrying my family took off, I did not cry. Rather, I wished I could fly the aircraft myself, so that my parents would not leave me behind ever again.
Today, I run my own business at the Dar es Salaam International Airport. Since 2003, VIA Aviation, formerly Tanzanite Jet Centre, provides fixed base operation services like refuelling, catering, cleaning and logistics, in Tanzania. VIA was the first company to offer such services in Tanzania and East Africa as a whole.
It has been a long journey to this point. My sister was attending university in the United States so, once I finished school in Tanzania, I travelled to Michigan to train as a pilot, taking my first flight lesson at age 19. At first, my lack of English language skills meant that I could not communicate with the control tower, so I was unable to make solo flights. My instructor suggested I improve my verbal English and then try again. Then, while I was studying English, I enrolled at a college aircraft maintenance programme to learn about aircraft systems. When I was done, I had completed all the requirements to be certified as airframe and power plant technician by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
That is how, without planning for it, I became an aircraft maintenance engineer, which allowed me to work while I completed my flying education. To maintain a student visa, I had to add more credits, so I then enrolled in an Aviation Management Degree programme.
I was aspiring to become a professional pilot for a major US carrier, but I completed my commercial pilot training around 11 September 2001. The awful terrorist attacks that occurred that day shook the aviation industry, and the job market for pilots was in crisis. With my student visa soon to expire, I had to come up with a ‘plan B’. That was when I decided to return to Tanzania and start my own company.
VIA Aviation provides vital services that help other businesses across the continent grow. As many economies in Africa experience rapid growth, lack of good quality road and rail infrastructure has become a real problem. It is all but impossible to travel by road between many major cities – including some in the same country! Despite this, just 20% of air traffic on the continent is African. That means travellers often have to go to Europe or the Middle East for a connecting flight to another African country. This is an expensive waste of time and, as the African economy matures, it is not acceptable to business leaders; more and more of them are chartering private planes. That is where my business comes in – by providing professional, high quality services to private aircraft. VIA Aviation fills a growing need in the market. We now have revenue of over $2 million, and I have plans to expand the business to more than 20 countries throughout Africa.
One key decision I made was that VIA Aviation would be the first company of our kind in East Africa to accept special business aviation credit cards (like Avcard, Colt, MultiService, and UVair) as well as Visa and MasterCard. 90% of VIA transactions are electronic, eliminating corruption, and removing the need for travellers to carry large amounts of cash to pay for fuel.
As a woman in business, and in a male-dominated field, I have encountered my share of obstacles; from the male airport officials who have blocked my entry to the aircraft I am working on, to clients to whom I must prove myself. I have also had to deal with corrupt officials who insist on being paid bribes for the simplest of tasks. When faced with these challenges, my approach has always been the same: to be confident and honest. I have confidence in my business, and the benefits we bring to clients and to the Tanzanian Government.
As a successful female entrepreneur, I recognize that I have a responsibility to support those following in my footsteps, and to give back to the community.
By Susan Mashibe