The tiny East African nation has proven to be a role model for the continent.
During her November 2018 visit to Rwanda, World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva described the country as one that has enjoyed impressive growth and often has bold ambitions.
In recent years, at business summits across the world, it’s not uncommon to hear such praise about Rwanda. Various speakers have singled it out as one of the emerging economies to look out for in terms of investment opportunities, value for money and economic growth.
The statistics explain why Rwanda has become Africa’s poster child for progress. The country has reduced reliance on donations and currently, domestically funds about 84% of the budget up from about 36% two decades ago.
In the last fiscal year (2017-2018), the economy grew by 8.9%.
Barely 24 years after the horrific genocide against the Tutsi, when the East African nation lost over a million lives and the devastation left a trail of trauma and economic ruin, its achievements have often been described as miraculous.
At the center of the tiny country’s recovery is President Paul Kagame, who led the revolt that ended the genocide.
Kagame has led his country from penury to prosperity. His government has co-invested alongside private capital to reduce risk and create a more appealing proposition.
For instance, when one of Africa’s leading telecoms groups, MTN, was keen on entering the Rwandan market in 1998, the government boosted their confidence by purchasing a 20% stake in the company.
This was driven by an ambition to not only attract the firm to the country but to ensure citizens have access to affordable telecom services. Years later, the government offloaded its stake in the firm through an initial public offering, allowing citizens to be part of a meaningful income-generating firm.
MTN is just one example of the strategic approaches taken by the Kagame-led government. The same has been replicated in multiple sectors, including finance and agriculture.
The last two decades on the Rwandan economic front have also been characterized by improving the investment ecosystem to create interest from the international and local business community.
While most would concentrate on the odds against the country, such as its small size, and its landlocked location, amidst a volatile region, Kagame sought to give investors every reason to put their money in Rwanda.
In a continent that has always been associated with corruption, the Rwandan government adopted a zero-tolerance stance on graft.
This was paired with the improvement of service delivery across all sectors, eliminating the need for bribes to access public services.
The most recent Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International placed Rwanda as third least corrupt country in Africa.
The reforms have for the last two decades addressed challenges that have often kept investors up at night. Steps that are cumbersome in countries across the world, such as business registration, were eased to a six-hour activity, while tax declaration and registration were simplified to online processes.
The World Bank ranked Rwanda 29th globally in its 2018 Ease Of Doing Business Report and put it second in Africa. The index tracks business efficiency across the world.
Many African economies are known for distinct exports or income streams that have remained unchanged for years. Rwanda chose a different path by embarking on a concerted effort to diversify exports and revenue streams.
This approach has seen services become the leading driver of gross domestic product growth in the last three years, taking over from agriculture.
Diversification has been achieved, in part, through an increased focus on tourism, driven by initiatives such as the Meetings Incentives Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) strategy which in less than five years placed Rwanda among the top conference destinations in Africa.
In May 2018, the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) ranked the capital Kigali as the third most popular conference and event destination on the continent, after Cape Town in South Africa, and Casablanca of Morocco.
The ranking considered as the country’s capacity to accommodate international meetings and events, together with landmark infrastructure such as a modern airport and a state-of-the-art conference center.
The country has projected doubling revenues from conference tourism.
According to Clare Akamanzi, the Chief Executive of the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), the country collected a total of $42 million from 192 conferences in 2017 and was projecting $74 million in 2018.
The diversification strategy has opened up investment opportunities for local and international investors (Marriott, Radisson Blu, Park Inn, Serena among others) and created thousands of jobs in the hospitality industry.
The Rwandan media was in November abuzz with news that all hotels in the country’s capital were fully booked for conferences during the month. Conference organizers and tour operators were also said to be stretched to capacity.
Statistics from the RDB indicate there were about 10,488 hotel rooms in the country in 2017, while aviation traffic is expected to grow to about 1,151,300 in 2018, from 926,571 in 2017.
The trend is expected to persist going forward. Rwanda will by the end of 2020 have a new modern airport located in the Bugesera District, a 25-minute drive from the capital.
While pursuing externally-driven growth, Kagame has not forgotten about the home front. This led his government to adopt a ‘Made in Rwanda’ strategy in 2016, which has reduced the trade deficit by about 36% and increased the value of total exports by about 69% from about $558 million to $943 million. Local producers have fast become empowered to produce for the local and export market.
The Rwandan leader has turned his attention to regional integration in the six-member East African Community to counter complaints about Africa’s small, fragmented markets.
The consolidated market of over 200 million citizens is more reassuring to investors and makes a business case for joint infrastructure projects such as the Standard Gauge Railway, which will connect the major Kenyan centers of Mombasa and Nairobi.
Lisa Kaestner, a practice manager for finance competitiveness and innovation at the International Finance Corporation, says: “I see Rwanda is keen on this and trying to support through the East African Community. This is one way to reduce the cost of doing business. If you look at it through the doing business lenses, all countries are trying to improve.”
Kagame’s continental mission has been evident in his various roles at the African Union (AU).
As the chairperson of the AU Reforms team, Kagame has advocated for less donor dependency and more sustainable funding by African states.
He has often challenged African countries who contribute less than 30% of the AU’s budget and turn to external donors with a begging bowl, which has been blamed for influencing the body’s decisions and priorities.
As AU chair, Kagame has sought an adjustment of terms between Africa and the rest of the world for mutual benefit. This, he has argued, is more sustainable in the long run and presents an avenue for growth among all parties, as opposed to aid, which maintains dependence.
Months after assuming the chairmanship of the AU, in March 2018, Kagame hosted over 50 African heads of state and government in Kigali for the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area.
As a trade bloc, the trade agreement envisions a continental market of 1.2 billion people, with a combined gross domestic product of more than $3.4 trillion.
So far, 49 countries have signed the agreement, with nine ratifications. The development is a huge step towards encouraging industrialization and job creation across Africa.
Peter Mathuki, Executive Director of the East African Business Council, says: “The country’s leadership is on grip to lift the EAC country to middle income level faster than most African countries. The fast economic growth is premised on pillars of good governance, easy-to-do business climate and zero tolerance to corruption… Rwanda is indeed Africa’s rising star and driver for economic transformation.”
– Collins Mwai