Published November 2019
There is a country in Africa with people who say the reason for their lack of economic progress and social equality is because of their troubled past.
Is this a reason or an excuse?
There is another country in Africa that went through considerably worse. At one point in their history, over a quarter-million people were being killed every month. That is roughly six people every minute.
If you look at this country today and consider that in less time, and with far fewer resources they have reversed the damages of their past, jump-started their economy and vastly improved the quality of life for its citizens, it is reasonable to ask South Africans if their reason is simply a convenient vindication.
But, does this other country actually exist?
In 1994 while South Africa was undergoing radical changes, about 4500 km away, Rwanda was in the middle of a genocide which lasted about 100 days. This is sadly an often forgotten fact.
My job is to share information on trends and technology and it would be negligent not to do a feature on Rwanda because they are the continental leader in innovation.
Countries world-wide can learn from Rwanda’s example and exactly how to become a nation of Future Thinkers: by not repeating or living in the past, no excuses, and getting down to business.
I first learned about Rwanda through a movie called Hotel Rwanda released in 2004 and I have never forgotten the scene when Don Cheadle (playing the hotel manager) had to drive over dead bodies scattered in the road.
The name of the actual hotel in the movie, which saved 2000 people’s lives, is called Hôtel des Mille Collines and it is situated in Kigali. I decided to have dinner there, and while parking my car the hairs on my arms stood up. In real life the hotel is bigger than the one I remembered from the film.
In the course of my research I learned that some of the staff members that worked during the genocide are still there today. Those I met during my visit were all young and smartly dressed.
There are about 110 rooms in the hotel and when it opened in 1973 it was the pride of the country. Today it still appears to be very upmarket and I must admit, the meal I had was delicious. I regret not booking a room there and instead used three other hotels, two of which were the worst I have ever experienced in my life. Hopefully there will be a Tourism Standard Organization launched soon to pay a visit to The Classic Hotel and The Mirror Hotel for a check on their grading.
The stories from Mille Collines are extraordinary. During the genocide it was a safe haven despite running out of water and people using the pool for drinking water.
When power was cut, it ran on generators which also eventually ran out of fuel plunging the hotel into darkness. Alcohol from the bar was used to bribe Hutu militants for the protection of the guests. The passages and hallways were where people cooked, making fires inside. Today, they are tiled and immaculately clean.
I tried to connect with Paul Rusesabagina, the original hotel manager, but he unfortunately lives overseas.
Rwanda is a small landlocked country measuring roughly 27 000 km2. It’s recorded past goes as far back as 8000 BC with the earliest social group called the ‘clan’ which included Hutu, Tutsi and Twa.
In the 15th century the clans started to merge into kingdoms and by the 17th century eight kingdoms existed. Rwanda was colonised in 1884 by Germany and then Belgium took over during World War 1.
There have always been disagreements between two groups - the Tutsis minority and the Hutus majority - despite being very similar in language and region. Tutsis in general are taller and thinner than Hutus who have origins in Ethiopia. I personally struggled to see any difference.
The Belgians considered the Tutsis to be superior to the Hutus, and, because of their opinion two decades of preferential treatment were given to the Tutsis resulting in better jobs, educational opportunities and general social status. This created resentment among the Hutus, and from some of the research I found the Tutsis literally educated their people to believe that they were superior.
Another factor leading to social pressures was the decline in the country’s economy which put increased stress on an already small job market. This came as a result of a poor global coffee market - coffee is Rwanda’s greatest export.
Rwanda and its neighbour Burundi gained their Independence in 1962.
Researching the country’s dark past was not an easy task for me. Learning about a method of torture called the “three-piece tie” is not something a Trend Writer enjoys, but something that had to be done to gain context. I know now, that a three-piece tie is when a person’s arms are knotted with ropes behind their backs in such a way that it puts extreme pressure on the breastbone which causes searing physical pain above the mental anguish a person would already be in.
Tragedy extends past the country’s borders. For example: 75 000 educated Hutus were massacred in Burundi three and a half years before the genocide.
The genocide started because of the murder of the Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana (a Hutu) when his plane was shot down above Kigali airport on 6 April 1994. The president of Burundi died at the same time.
Most murders were at the hands of Hutu extremists and took place between April and June 1994. The total deaths could never be confirmed because it is possible to still find new remains today. However, most will agree that around 950 000 Rwandans were killed. This is the worst genocide in Africa and the tenth worst worldwide in all recorded history. Regardless, so few South Africans know about it.
The then-governing party, National Republican Movement for Democracy, used its youth wing called the Interahamwe as a militia to start the wave of murders. At its peak this group had 30 000 members. Lists of government opponents were handed out to the militia who executed on command, extending their mandate to the target’s families as well.
Extremists set up a radio station (Télévision Libre des Mille Collines) and newspapers to share hate propaganda encouraging people to "weed out the cockroaches". This meant ‘kill the Tutsis’.
There was nowhere to hide and I can imagine it was hard to trust anyone.
Machetes were used to dismember people while families watched. Explosives blew up churches with refugees inside.
In a few days, the country was soaked in blood. Neighbours, friends, colleagues, all killed one another. Priests murdered out of fear for their own life and husbands killed their Tutsi wives.
Partakers were given money or food as a reward. Some were told they could take the land of the Tutsis they killed. It was easy to identify a Tutsi because at the time ID cards had people's ethnic group detailed on them.
No one would help, and internationally the killings were written off as Africa fighting with itself. The French sent Special Forces to get their own people out. The UN and Belgium did nothing, giving the excuse that they had no mandate to act.
The slaughter carried on until the Tutsi-led rebel movement RPF captured the capital city of Kigali and a ceasefire was declared. Two million Hutus fled to DR Congo at this time.
Once the dust had settled and the blood-soaked into the sand, the International Criminal Tribunal was set up in Arusha, Tanzania by the UN Security Council with the aim to prosecute the main instigators of the genocide.
My research found that only 93 people were charged (all of them Hutus) and only after lengthy and expensive trials. 93 does not sound like a fraction of the number of people it would take to carry out the actions that resulted in the death of nearly 1 million people.
Today, this country of 13 million people is respectful of their past but 100% focused on their future together. It is illegal to talk about ethnicity. You are neither Hutu nor Tutsi, you are Rwandan.
Rwandans are people who have used technology as a catalyst for improvement, undergoing rapid industrialisation and social reform despite so few resources to work with.
This progress can only happen when a firm decision is made and robust actions are taken. There is evidence of Rwanda’s determination in policies designed to transform a previously agrarian society into a sophisticated knowledge-based economy. There is a fresh sense of national identity, unity and pride. I saw no dirt on the streets, all of which had power-saving LED lights. I saw no pavement without a garden and all businesses were open on a Sunday.
The compliments for Rwanda come from all over the world, and frequently. When I was there I accidentally bumped into David Luiz (player for Premier League Club Arsenal) at the Gorilla and Volcano Park. When David arrived home he launched a campaign encouraging people to visit Rwanda.
Many laud President Kagame for transforming the country into what it is today. He is a leader who has a keen interest in ensuring that Rwanda becomes a technological hub if you are to believe what he posts on Twitter.
Rwanda’s biggest trade partners are China and Uganda, and the country’s gross domestic product is probably around 10 Billion USD in worth. Rwanda is also developing relationships with Singapore, Thailand and Mozambique.
The country generates most of its income through subsistence agriculture, with over 80% of the working population involved with farming. I saw many small farms during my time there. Each morning, people come out with brooms made of grass and spend time brushing leaves from the road and pavements near their property before heading back into their home garden.
There are 5 provinces and 30 districts, all with several roads of manicured roadside hedges. One province is so tiny it only has 10 000 people.
At least 8 districts I passed through had arches across the roads as welcome gates. I was impressed with how good the cell phone signal was while driving from one area to another, a data call had better quality than those I experienced back home.
The largest city is Kigali with between 900 000 and 1.2 million people. Kigali was founded in 1907 by Dr Richard Kandt and today is the cleanest and safest capital city on the continent. The population is expected to triple in the next 40 years.
In 2008 the City of Kigali won the UN Habitat Scroll of Honor Award because of zero tolerance for plastics and improved garbage collection. No one throws rubbish in the road. There is too much respect for their land and themselves.
At every shopping centre I went to, there was security and very often metal detectors or scanners. Police are visible in every suburb and they frequently stop cars to do random checks.
I felt safe walking the streets.
I love that residents take part in cleaning their town every last Saturday of each month. I drove past a lady on route to Vision City (the largest residential housing project in Rwanda) and witnessed her pick up a plastic bottle on the road which she placed it in her handbag before she carried on walking. Actions like these are the reason Kigali will achieve a standard as a Centre of Urban Excellence. It is a city of character, and at the same time a town that focuses on enhancing nature and protecting biodiversity.
One of the manicured traffic circle gardens even had a resident goat. Animals have a place in Rwanda, and it was common to see pigs going on a walk with their owner.
Rwanda is focusing on 3 pillars of excellence: Social Inclusion, Sustainable Development, and Economic Growth.
The country has considerable natural resources such as hydro, solar, peat, gas, and biomass. Almost all electricity is generated through either Thermal or Hydro related power plants. During my research I found 7 hydro plants with 4 more planned, 3 Thermal stations with two more planned. There are 2 solo power stations and 1 planned for the future. Unfortunately the country is struggling to distribute power to its entire population and is set to overcome this hurdle within the next 6 years.
Rwanda has a government that engages in Green politics and green money! Have you heard of the Green Fund? Take a look at this website: https://www.fonerwa.org.
Government is not carrying all the weight of progress. Each person and each company are playing a part at some level, and you will find corporate and organization partnerships all over. For example, at one of the hotels I visited I saw references to the Hope Shines Project (https://hopeshines.org/about/social-enterprise), which has partnered with Eco-Soap Bank (https://ecosoapbank.org). Several hotels are involved and they take discarded soap, recycle it and distribute it to families.
Another project I found during my research and really like is: https://kigali.impacthub.net, and their contribution is to facilitate collaborations driving positive change.
I get the sense that Rwanda is only just getting started. There is an undeniable energy in the air. You can almost hear progress being made. An interesting observation as well: I did not see one homeless person or beggar on the streets.
I did see street signs to memorials and there are many all around the country. They are reminders of what must never happen again and also a peaceful place to visit and spend quiet time to reflect, remembering those who have been lost.
Each site has its own story of pain, and while there are too many to list, I want to give a few examples like the Murambi Genocide Memorial site where 2 700 individuals were slaughtered. The memorial is housed in a school.
There are 12 000 remains of victims at the Gisenyi Memorial site in Gisenyi peripheries.
Gisozi Memorial site located in Gasabo district close to Kigali city is where most of the Tutsi victims were murdered and has approximately 300 000 people buried there. I visited this site and I could not look at some of the images on display. Towards the end of the tour I was overcome with a sense of deep loss and regret, tears started to build up behind my eyes.
It would be remiss of me not to mention there is a growing criticism regarding human rights concerns in Rwanda today, some coming from very reputable authorities like the UN, Amnesty International and also the Human Rights Watch. One of the main issues is the treatment of government critics and questions around opposition members and journalists who have ended up in prison with long sentences for crimes such as hate speech. I hope prison is not being used as a tool against freedom of speech or difference of opinion.
After visiting the country, I do not feel Rwanda is being run as a dictatorship. Freedom does not appear to be under threat. My humble opinion is the good surpasses any negative.
Crime is low. Child mortality has dropped. Employment is up. The economy is growing. Transport systems are developing. Fundamental sectors such as health and education are improving.
There was reference to technology degrees and courses on several buildings I passed in even the remotest areas. There are shops visibly advertising green and sustainable services.
Not mentioned enough in reports, but a clear observation I made is the partnership between people and nature in Rwanda.
Rwanda is open for business and hosted the World Economic Forum on Africa, and also the TransformAfrica Summit and GSMA’s m360 Africa.
The World Bank’s in 2018 Ease of Doing Business Index report said Rwanda is performing better than countries like Italy and Belgium. It is especially interesting that they are outperforming Belgium.
World Bank data shows foreign direct investments has jumped almost 15-fold between 2005 and 2009. Paris-based Viva Technology (https://vivatechnology.com ), announced two investment funds: the 100$ million Innovation Fund by the Rwanda Development Board which is dedicated to start-ups, and another for 76$ million for an African Startup Fund.
A Pan-African infrastructure Investment Firm is investing 400$ million in Kigali to open an Innovation City which will be a technology cluster to attract domestic and foreign universities, tech companies and biotech firms.
Rwanda is in many ways the Singapore of Africa', the San Francisco of the USA or the Shenzhen of China. Don’t be shocked if you find Google, Alibaba, Facebook, and Amazon in Rwanda. Have you heard of the company Positivo BGH? (https://www.positivobgh.com ) They are just one example of many international companies operating in Africa’s Silicone Valley, with the first ever Rwandan laptop.
The week I was there Volkswagen opened its first production car plant in the Special Economic Zone, which hopes to complete at least 1000 units annually. The day I flew out of Rwanda I learnt of a company called Safi Limited, a Rwandan start-up company who has launched electronic motorbikes.
The country is ideal for entrepreneurs. I loved a story I read about how entrepreneurs used to have to endure 9 steps to start a business at a huge expense, but today it takes only two steps and around three days.
Barrett Nash, (co-founder of SafeMotos https://cango.africa, reported to be the 7th most Innovative Company in Africa) lives in Rwanda on an ICT residency permit and was able to incorporate his company within 24 hours. He got his first office space in a government-sponsored Tech lab. His company at the time I wrote this article has transported over 600 000 people using their App.
Any entrepreneurs reading this article and looking to collaborate in Rwanda, have a look at local organisation: https://klab.rw.
If funding is what you need, see: https://digestafrica.com/vc-firm-sobek-capital-rwandan-offices. (Funds between 10 000$ and 250 000$.)
Another great site and project:
Farmers can receive updates on the market prices for their crops with an SMS service called e-Soko (https://esoko.com ). Yego Moto, a Rwandan-based start-up, provides meters to 1900 drivers of cars and motorcycle taxis to enable cashless payments and verification of Taxi drivers: https://www.yegomoto.com/
You will find commuter busses with smart card systems like those in the UK. Their smart-card ticketing system is known as Twende. Drivers' can access the traffic departments via an SMS-based application to make appointments or get results of driving tests.
Telecommunications are vital for any nation. There are three primary mobile phone operators who collectively provide 95.1% coverage. I love the fact that entrepreneurs are using cell related services to launch micro-businesses selling mobile top-up cards. You will see them on street corners around town.
MTN has teamed up with the Commercial Bank of Rwanda and together allow for the transfer of money between accounts, withdrawals of cash and enable customers to pay electricity using SMS messages.
The country is participating with mPedigree (https://mpedigree.com ) which is an advanced mobile and web service in Rwanda used to battle fake medicines - a dangerous problem in Africa.
The other main reason for my visit to Rwanda was because of the country’s objective to build Africa's First Green City at a cost of $5 Billion. I stood on the 620-hectare site in the Gasabo District Kigali City where this is going to take place and let myself dream a little.
Can you imagine a city for a moment, a place with electric cars and motorcycles, a town powered by renewable energy? Homes that are connected to a sustainable waste treatment program. There are urban forests using a system that prevents environmental degradation. Shops that offer food and products from sustainable and environmentally responsible sources. Technology that increases efficiency and not at the expense of nature. A place for Future Thinkers.
Rwanda is building this today.
I love that Green Jobs is a working trend in this small country, and their new city is expected to create between 80 000 and 320,000 jobs. I hope to come back in a few years to see the progress and perhaps get to visit Cactus Green Park or have coffee in one of the 410 smart houses planned in the Green City.
Rwanda, what an inspiration.
Published November 2019Read more articles