Rwanda awakening

by Alexandre Niyungeko

Finally! (Issue I/2020)


People in Kigali passing by an advertising hoarding, showing businesses and shops in the background. Photo: Till Muellenmeister/´/laif

Many visitors from abroad are struck by how clean and green Rwanda is. Marcellin Mugenzi, who lives in Kigali, the capital, has no eye for this. In his mid-40s, he talks with pride about the economic transformation taking place in his country. In his view, what’s particularly noticeable is the development of the infrastructure. The Banque Populaire in Kigali used to be the only one in Rwanda, with branches in just a few towns, now every town has its own bank. Rwandans can now transfer and receive money, deposit savings and get micro-credit loans using the phone app “Mobile Money”. There are fewer and fewer banknotes in circulation because water, gas and electricity bills, subscriptions, tickets, taxes, supermarket purchases and restaurant visits can now be paid online.

Marcellin Mugenzi has lived through two distinct eras that have split the past into a before and an after. 25 years ago, genocide carried out by the Rwandan army (FAR) and Hutu militias known as the Interahamwe murdered a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Incited to hatred against Tutsis, a large proportion of the Hutu population took part in the massacres. The catastrophe brought the country to its knees. There was no state infrastructure. No schools, hospitals or judicial system. “In 1994 the average life expectancy was 29 years and annual per capita income was around 125 US dollars. Initial conditions in this country were so grim that they could only get better,” says research economist Eddy Sinzikayo. Life expectancy is now 67 years. The transformation, which other lands can only dream about, has taken place so astonishingly fast that some of the official statistics are questionable. This transformation, that some are already calling an economic miracle, Eddy Sinzikayo ascribes to Rwanda committing itself to a radical building up of economic structures. “The country, which at one time had 80 percent of its people working in agriculture, is steering its economy towards new technologies.” Between 2006 and 2018 the service sector increased its revenue from 1.4 billion to 3.6 billion US dollars and now makes up 49 percent of the economy.

“The “Mara” smartphone is wholly manufactured in Rwanda”

The “one-stop shop” system enables investors to set up businesses in Rwanda in just a few hours. To register a company with the Rwanda Development Board is straightforward and costs nothing. Every district across the country has a place that helps you do this. The Doing Business Report ranked Rwanda and Georgia at the top of their 2019 list of the most reform-oriented countries. Thanks to funding and support for the private economy, every year 240 million US dollars’ worth of direct investment flows into innovative fields like car manufacturing or smartphone production, with names like Volkswagen for cars and the Mara Group for mobile phone networks. VW’s factory, inaugurated in June 2018, rolls out 1,000 cars a year. After months of research and development, in October 2019 the firm presented its first electric car with a battery power of 230 hours. The “E-Golf” is the product of a partnership between the Rwandan government and Volkswagen, giving the country a pioneering role in Africa.

“We’re here because we want to show what’s possible – not only in Rwanda but aross the whole of Africa,” says Michaella Rugwizangoga, head of Volkswagen’s Mobility Solutions department. The first fleet of E-Golfs at the moment comprises four vehicles, with 50 more coming soon.

The country is also a pioneer in mobile communications. The “Mara” smartphone is wholly manufactured in Rwanda, and the Mara X version sells for 130 US dollars. Rwanda is committing itself fully to technology development – the project “A Computer for Every Child” is expected to benefit children in primary schools, while secondary schools have already been equipped with computers.

Young people in Rwanda are optimistic about the future. 20-year-old Divine Umuhoza thinks it’s good that her country is creating education and job opportunities for young people. “I’ve never been abroad but I know from media reports that Rwanda is being seen more and more as an example for the African continent.”

For Anne Niyuhire, who moved to Rwanda from Burundi, it’s especially gratifying that Rwanda boasts internationally renowned high schools that take students from different countries. One of these is Carnegie Mellon University, which specialises in engineering science and information technology and is ranked among the top five schools in these subjects. Unicef reports that the literacy level has reached 73.5 percent and that 98.7 percent Rwandan children are going to primary school.

Since the introduction of compulsory health insurance, 98 percent of the population have access to healthcare. And the programme “Gira Inka Munyarwanda” (“A Cow for Every Rwandan”) donates a cow to every self-employed agricultural worker to fertilise their lands with manure. At the same time, administrative structures are being decentralised so that state-managed services genuinely reach regional populations. The government encourages competition between its administrative arms. Projects range from electrification to drinking water facilities and more effective healthcare. In this way, Marcellin Mugenzi argues, emerge new towns and villages that are close to banks, schools and healthcare facilities.

“The country isn’t richly endowed with natural resources”

A major ingredient of the economic boom has a been the process of reconciliation that has become possible as a result of the reappraisal of the recent past. The UN Security Council created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in November 1994. This court was set up to bring to justice the perpetrators and ideological masterminds of the genocide. Alongside this, the government supported the court’s activities and brought back the traditional “Gacaca” tribunals, traditionally used to adjudicate on conflicts. These were chaired by former dignitaries who were held in high esteem for their integrity. The Gacaca tribunals had the power to punish violations of collectively accepted values, to restore social order and to integrate offenders back into the community. For the first time, the right to pass judgement on someone was assigned to the populace. Between 2005 and 2012, verdicts were announced on more than two million people – a first step towards reconciliation.

Despite these advances, the country faces a number of challenges, many of which are because it’s one of the most heavily populated nations in the world. There are still armed groups rebelling against the government and occasionally attacking from bases in neighbouring countries. Several of those suspected of responsibility in the genocide live in exile, and some have been arrested and charged in other countries.

25 years after the genocide, the country is striving to restore its social fabric and stimulate its economy. “We need to build up our system into an industrial and service economy,” says Eddy Sinzikayo. The economics expert sees all the prerequisites in place for this, even though the country isn’t richly endowed with natural resources. It’s politically stable, has a robust political leadership and is one of the world’s least corrupt countries.

Translated from the French by Andreas Bredenfeld
Translated by Jess Smee

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