Gakwaya's rise to a national rally champion

Motorsport may be one of the most entertaining sports the world over. In Rwanda, it is a different case and few would struggle to name even one single local rally driver.
Jean Claude Gakwaya is enjoying his reign as the National Rally Champion. File.
Jean Claude Gakwaya is enjoying his reign as the National Rally Champion. File.

Motorsport may be one of the most entertaining sports the world over. In Rwanda, it is a different case and few would struggle to name even one single local rally driver.

Locally, so much has to be done to make the sport a little more popular to attract more fans.

In some parts of the country such as Huye, Gisagara and Bugesera, the sport is slowly picking up.

Indeed some names are familiar when referring to rallying in Rwanda- names like Natalie Cox, Rudy Cantanede, Giancarlo Davite and Jean-Claude Gakwaya among others.

This week, Saturday Sport reporter Richard Bishumba had a chat with the reigning rally national champion Jean-Claude Gakwaya about his aspirations and the future of rally sport in Rwanda

“Rally is an interesting sport, very impactful to the thinking capacity and attention to small details of the driver. Unfortunately, we still have a very long way to go in Rwanda because of insufficient competitions, minimal support and very little awareness,” Gakwaya said on Thursday.

Asked if he would advise his son to take up rallying, the 45-year-old Gakwaya, who is enjoying the reign as Rwanda national rally champion for the first time in his career, replied with no hesitation,” I would absolutely encourage my son to start rallying as early as he possibly can.”

“I also encourage parents, and society at large, to be a little more open-minded about rallying. It is perceived as a game for the rich or very risky sport to practice, but those are myths and wrong perceptions.

“Rallying is as safe as any other sport and more fun than most of the popular sports we all love watching and actively participate in. All it takes is keen interest and deep love for the sport,” Gakwaya noted.

Who is Gakwaya?

Born on October 15, 1975 in Nyanza District, South Province to Alfred Kanobana (RIP) and Anna Marie Nyirajyambere, JC Gakwaya is the fourth born from a family of six including two boys and four girls. His young brother Eric Gakwaya is also a rally driver.

Their cousin-brother, Christian Gakwaya, the son of former rally driver Claude Gakwaya (RIP), is the president of Rwanda Autombile Club (RAC) that governs motorsport in the country.

Gakwaya attended his primary school in his home town Nyanza before going to ETO Muhima (now defunct), where he completed both ordinary and advanced level studies.

However, after A-level, he never had a chance to continue to a higher institution of learning. Instead, he chose to focus on doing business and contributing to the development of Rwanda motorsport.

Prior to concentrating on rally, Gakwaya revealed to Saturday Sport that he also tried cycling when he was young and even took part in a few amateur races but not for so long.

Self-made rally driver

Gakwaya never had a mentor or special support to join rally. He says that his love affair with the motorsport dates back in late 1990s when he watched the Huye Rally and since then, he has never looked back. He started learning and doing research about motorsport until 2003.

Gakwaya did not initially join the sport as a racer, but rather as part of the organizing committee and at times as a sponsor, something he enjoyed doing for ten years.

His debut competition as a driver was in 2012, racing in his old Peugeot 205 GTI—he finished fifth overall in the national championship.

Gakwaya also declared that, “It may sound strange but I have no role-model to look up to in rallying, be it locally, on the continent or globally,” and despises comparing himself with anyone else.

“The only comparison I do about myself is the driver I was yesterday and how I am doing today. I only focus on getting better on my own.”


In the 2013 season, then making his second appearance in the national rally championship, Gakwaya and his co-driver Claude Mugabo changed their race car to a Subaru Impreza STi N10, which they still use today.

After five years of trying but with little success, Gakwaya won his first National Rally Championship title at the sixth attempt last year.

“Over the last several years, there has been very little competition locally, it’s discouraging at times. However, I am now focusing on going continental and challenging for the African Rally Championship (ARC), at least before I retire from professional rallying,” he promised.

He admitted that lack of serious competition among the local drivers has kept away corporate sponsors, which has in turn affected the growth of motorsport in Rwanda, meaning that Rwandan drivers find it extremely tough to compete against the top dogs in Africa.

Hope for the future

Gakwaya is confident that Rwanda motorsport has the potential to make good progress with time, he bases his argument on two key things—the growing number of spectators and the young drivers joining the sport.

“The young drivers are the future of this sport and deserve all the possible support if we are to turn Rwanda into one of Africa’s top rallying countries. We have the talent and the will but we can do with more support—financial, logistical and administrative,” he explained.