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Rwanda Inc. Rules In The Land Of A Thousand Cranes

It is one of the most ambitious countries in Africa with a story that Hollywood scriptwriters would have struggled to write. Can a shattered country, scarred by destruction and death, rebuild itself into a hi-tech Singapore of Africa in less than three decades? It won’t be easy, but Rwanda dreams on.




Celestin Rwabukumba is the fresh-faced father of the Rwanda Stock Exchange. Every morning he breezes into work in Kigali with business in his head and the fragile future of one of Africa’s newest stock exchanges in his hands.

“As a country, the sky is the limit,” he says.

At the age of 39, Rwabukumba must be one of the youngest stock exchange leaders in the world.  Despite his tender years, in business at least, Rwabukumba has every justification to call himself the sage of stock trading in Rwanda. His story is as remarkable as that of the tiny exchange.

Rwabukumba is a survivor of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. He lost most of his family, including his father, who died in the 100 days of madness that claimed more than 800,000 lives. Like many in Rwanda, he is reluctant to dwell on the horrors that visited upon his family and I do not have the heart to ask him.

What is clear is that Rwabukumba fled his country to the United States where he studied at the University of Buffalo, near New York, and earned a degree in economics. He became a stockbroker in New York and worked on Wall Street.

In 2004, came the call from home and Rwabukumba returned to Rwanda to work on a project to set up capital markets. It bore fruit in 2008, when Rwanda set up a rudimentary over-the-counter exchange, with a whiteboard and marker pens that you only see in schools these days.

On January 3, 2011, the Rwanda Stock Exchange was born in the brand new high-rise building that towers over Kigali. The building itself, is a symbol of the triumph of capital over disaster.

“For many Rwandans, like me, it has made us stronger as a nation. We are a resilient people ready to fight for a better future,” says Rwabukumba.

The RSE may be a speck on the African capital landscape, but it is growing in strength. It must be one of the few exchanges on earth where you can list the listings in one short sentence: NMG, a cross listing from Kenya; KCB, a Kenyan bank; Bralirwa, a brewery in Rwanda and the Bank of Kigali.

Trading is growing slowly; the marker pens are still there. The exchange plans to go electronic in December.

Every day the traders, in their bright red jackets, write out trades that it would take merely seconds for other African exchanges to notch up. In 2011, the RSE traded an average of $131,000 a day; in 2013 this has more than doubled to $292,000.

“My dream is for a big telecommunications company, like MTN, to list here. That would bring more capital and confidence to our market here,” Rwabukumba says.

Rwanda appears far from short of confidence as it emerges from the kind of hell that it has taken other countries in Africa decades to recover from. For the last 10 years, a time when the economies of the world struggled, Rwanda’s economy has grown by an average of 8.2%, according to finance minister Claver Gatete.

“This year, we are predicting 7.5% at the very minimum,” says Gatete.

Gatete, a former ambassador to London and head of the National Bank of Rwanda, took the job of guiding his country’s economy in February.  He says the key to success is the country’s stability and its prudent economic policy that has made it the third easiest place to do business in Africa. The country has fast internet and a will to do business. Credit card giant Visa gave Rwanda a vote of confidence by choosing the country for one of its credit card programs.

“We have come a long way, we have reached the bottom, the only way to go up is to make sure we take ownership of the growth of our economy and sustain it,” says Gatete.

You can register a company in Kigali in six hours and move your money in and out freely. Inflation, in the years after the genocide, was as high as 65%, now it is down to single figures.

Rwanda is also pushing forward the East Africa Community, the trading bloc of one of the fastest growing regions in the world. It has helped speed up trade across it by removing cloying weighbridges and bureaucracy; at the same time bringing in ICT to reduce clearing times.

Corruption is low and the country’s president Paul Kagame has built strong institutions in Rwanda to ensure it doesn’t get a foothold. In many ways the erudite and pragmatic Kagame, who talks like a CEO, has worked hard to shape the country into Rwanda Inc. It was he who encouraged many skilled Rwandans to return home and it is he who sees toughness as the only way to run his country. Legend has it that Kagame has appeared in person in government offices to fire corrupt officials.

“I don’t know about that, but he can fire you across the table in a meeting,” chuckles one of the Kigali inner circle.

When Rwanda struggled to sell its low quality coffee, Kagame brought in a team of United States agronomists to work out how the country could turn it into super-premium grade for export. Commodities, including tea and coffee, now make up more than three quarters of export earnings.

The streets of Kigali are clean and without potholes. Every month, Rwandans, including the president, take a few hours out of their day to clean and repair their neighborhood. Crime is also low among a people who appear exceedingly weary of conflict.

This dedication to order and business reflects on the Kigali skyline. The so-called land of a thousand hills is well on the way to becoming the land of a thousand cranes. The capital, once smashed and littered with dead, is rebuilding from the ground floor upwards. I have been traveling to Kigali since 2005 and was heartened to see new hotels, a sign that strong investment is on the way and accommodation prices could soon be on the way down.  I also saw one of the hotels had a lucky red Chinese lantern hanging from the scaffolding.

The rise from the ashes by the economy of Rwanda has been a remarkable story, but there are problems too. There is a lack of skills and the country’s small coffers are likely to struggle to buy all of the resources and equipment needed for a growing economy. Most of Rwanda’s 45 million people crowd onto scarce land and live from subsistence farming.

Maybe the biggest threat to the investor-friendly stability that Rwanda is trying to build comes from outside its borders. In the unstable eastern region of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, insurgents fight a running war. A number of donors cut off aid this year after accusing Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebels in the DRC. Rwanda denies this strongly. Gatete hopes private money will replace lost donor funds.

“Rwanda believes that in order to succeed peace is very, very crucial, that is why, when it comes to the DRC, we are the first to support the peace, and we believe that a solution is a regional solution working with the DRC government,” says Gatete, when asked by FORBES AFRICA about the allegations.

At home, many in Kigali say opposition is discouraged, to say the least. Two Rwandan journalists emerged from prison in August after completing a three-year jail term for what the courts called divisionism, genocide denial, defamation and incitement to violence. The two had written a series of articles critical of the government.

“The whole world is not homogenous. We cannot cut and paste democracy for something to look good. It has to work for us. We do not have the kind of democracy where we have a politician saying one thing and then the next day the opposition goes on the radio to say it is wrong. We have a parliament where all members can give constructive ideas,” says Vincent Karega, Rwanda’s ambassador to South Africa.

There is also the question of who will lead Rwanda when Kagame completes his term in 2017.

For the future, Rwanda is banking on ICT and the services industry. Kagame has studied the Asian Tigers and wants to make Rwanda the Singapore of Africa. The country has invested in hundreds of schools and colleges in an attempt to train a workforce capable of making this dream happen.

Many African countries could take a leaf out of Rwanda’s book when it comes to building an economy. True, Rwanda is a small country where it is easier to carry out sweeping changes among a people who are steeled to suffer for a better future by the violence and upheaval that befell their forebears. Taking that into account, there is no reason why many other African nations could not equally take advantage of the free market forces that Rwanda is unfettering by welcoming investors, fighting corruption and speeding up the internet.

Looking ahead, could there be a problem if the government in Rwanda feels it has lost control of its country to wealthy foreign investors? Unlikely, while this generation of politicians rule the roost.

“We want that,” says Gatete, “We need the private sector to be with us to build our economy… This is inclusive of the economic growth that is touching the lives of everybody and everyone is seeing the benefits of what the government is doing.”

It appears Rwanda Inc. is likely to be open for business for a long time to come.


Masai Ujiri’s dream of harnessing untapped African talent



The President of Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, on his adoration for Africa as a continent filled with unlimited potential and talent.

The tall man in sport, Masai Ujiri, is a name in professional basketball far beyond the borders of Africa and his native Nigeria.

Born in England but having grown up in Zaria in Africa’s most populous country, Ujiri’s adoration for Africa sees him on the continent often, inspiring the youth.

“Africa is no more afraid. We are not afraid of anybody anymore. The continent is bold. The people are bold,” says Ujiri, when FORBES AFRICA meets him in Johannesburg in November at the Africa Investment Forum in which he participated.

The continent has a special place in his heart.

The President of the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA), also founded Giants of Africa (GOA) in 2003, as a way of harnessing budding, untapped talent.

“As long as I am in a position where I am able to, we have to give the youth a chance. We have to pave a path for them and there is nothing I can’t do. I have to do everything, it is an obligation, I have to be an example for them by creating that pathway,” he says.

Ujiri, who started playing basketball at the age of 13, travels to Africa every August to visit the GOA camps across seven countries on the continent, training young boys and girls to be leaders in both sport and everyday life.

He says he draws inspiration from each and every country in Africa, and the feeling is inexplicable.

The history and culture are a constant reminder of his years growing up in Africa.

Whether it is in Kenya, where his mother was born, or the lasting friendships in Rwanda, Senegal or Nigeria, each country holds special memories.

Apart from the numerous trips in and out of the continent, 2018 granted Ujiri a rare once-in-a-lifetime moment.

This was in July when Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, visited Kenya, and with him, Ujiri opened a basketball court in the country.

Ujiri’s outreach program GOA launched it at the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resources and Vocational Centre in Alego; familiar ground for both leaders.

Managed by Auma Obama, Sauti Kuu, much like GOA, is focused on youth development.

“To spend that time with somebody that Africa means so much to, meant so much to me and so much to Auma. We are trying to inspire youth, we built a court that is going to impact the youth and that was special,” says Ujiri. 

Being able to scout African talent is what is imperative for Ujiri, and it all comes down to building facilities to help the youth play basketball.

Ultimately, his dream for Africa is not only to see material wealth but for talent to go beyond what he has achieved.

“My dream is to have one of the youth become bigger than me, and bigger than everybody. People think I always dream of building this and doing that but I want one of these kids to take everything that they learn and do better in each and everything.

“I love the continent; I love the culture of different places. I am almost like Anthony Bourdain [the late American celebrity chef], that is how it really is with basketball, with the culture, the people and the food,” says Ujiri.

Staying true to his African roots, when we meet him, Ujiri speaks about his favorite yam and stew dish that he says reminds him of his childhood.

It’s such memories that see him taking the long-haul flight out of Toronto to Africa each year.

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Brewing Success: Lessons From A Beer Baron



Canadian John Sleeman shares his entrepreneurial lessons with Africa.

cis not your typical textbook entrepreneur. His belief in what it takes to be an entrepreneur is so controversial that his advice is no longer welcome in MBA classes. The white-haired charismatic brewer, who re-established his family’s brewing business in 1988 as one of the most successful in Canada, offers sage advice to African entrepreneurs, although he has no plans to expand in Africa – yet.

Nonchalantly, in his automated beer manufacturing plant in Guelph, Canada, surrounded by people enjoying his craft beer, Sleeman says he believes entrepreneurs are born, not made. He argues that unless you are prepared to go bankrupt, work over 80 hours a week, lose your friends, face the prospect of divorce, put your house on mortgage and miss meeting friends for drinks on Fridays, then entrepreneurship is not for you.

He should know. This is the toll he took to restart his family business. It had lost its licence and was banned from the market for 50 years in 1933. This was for smuggling beer during the roaring 1920s by brokering deals with bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone when prohibition set in in Canada.

Passionately, the beer baron, who plans to open a micro-distillery later this year, and is considering expanding his business in either the eastern or western parts of Canada, tells FORBES AFRICA: “If you want to be an entrepreneur, be very focused on what you want to achieve and don’t let people talk you out of it. If it is a dream, pursue it until you are successful.”

He attributes his success to surrounding himself with the right people. They will make or break your business, says Sleeman. You should be ready to change your business model if the current one isn’t working, he adds.

In his own case, he did this after his colleague advised him that rather than opening up new breweries across Canada, he should buy existing ones that share Sleeman Breweries’ crazy passion for beer and authenticity.

Sleeman reckons you shouldn’t grow so big that you lose your entrepreneurial flair, first-mover advantage and risk-appetite, but you also shouldn’t remain so small that you get knocked out of business or get bought out by someone who does not see your vision and wants to dismantle you, as it almost happened to his business in 2006. If you do sell, reminisces Sleeman, sell to someone who sees your vision, like Sleeman Breweries did, when Japanese company Sapporo saved the Guelph-based firm from a hostile takeover.

But that’s history. Since then, Sapporo has helped fund research and development and training for the business, whose humble, down-to-earth founder is now taking it on its next spirited journey.

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The Story Of The $3,000 Sneakers



South African artist Conor McCreedy on creating what could be the world’s most expensive sneakers.

A literally stumbled upon a business opportunity.

The renowned South African artist, who only paints in blue,was one day at work in his studio, in a 600-year-old, four-storeyed building in Zurich, when he accidentally spilled some of the monochromatic pigment on to his white sneakers.

Who knew it would lead to a designer line of expensive sneakers.

The artist, resident in Switzerland since 2014, now sells the limited edition sneakers for $3,000 a pair. 

What helped that day was that the painting accident was shortly before a meeting with an art collector.

“This art dealer wanted some work for a private collection.I couldn’t get time to put my shoes on, so I went in my sneakers, and this guy just loved them… He opened up to me and said he likes the idea. ‘Try and take it further’, he said to me,” says McCreedy to FORBES AFRICA, on the phone from Switzerland.

Artist Conor McCreedy. Picture: Supplied

After spending four months finalizing the collaboration with an established shoe company, Ludwig Reiter, the concept sprung to life.

A regular pair of their white sneakers sells for $685, but with a splash of McCreedy, it costs almost five times more.   

“A lot of people can put paint on sneakers. We are not reinventing the world but putting the McCreedy blue on to a sneaker. It has a value chain,” he says.

Even before its launch mid-November, nine of the 200 limited edition sneakers had been sold to collectors from around the world.

“I love when people say that the splash looks like a kid’s.I actually like that, it has taken me 30 years to create that splash, that is a great story,” says McCreedy.

He adds the handcrafted sneaker will not only appeal to art lovers who are looking to collect, but even corporate titans and banking CEOs,and the uber-chic would want to wear it at cultural festivals.

In Switzerland, ultra-networth and high-networth-individuals are his customers.

“The beautiful part is that the sneakers are backed by my art, and compared to the art, they are relatively cheap,” says McCreedy.

Artist Conor McCreedy converted an old bank building into his studio and atelier in Zurich. Picture: Supplied

The tranquillity and stability the artist associates with the color blue led to the creation of his own pigment known as ‘McCreedy blue’.

McCreedy has used it to create most of his paintings since 2011.

But building a career through art requires more than just mixing color on canvas.

“Art is always considered a luxury; don’t let anyone fool you when they say it is not luxurious. People don’t just buy art, it is a luxury creation… If Picasso was alive today, he would probably have his own app,” he says.

His art inspired him to create products, from candles to a coffee blend on sale on the ground floor of his studio.

The space is curated so it’s an alluring odyssey for customers.

White walls are adorned with original McCreedy blue paintings, showcasing the artist’s work for prospective buyers, collectors and dealers.

The ‘Essence of McCreedy blue’ forms part of the luxurious elements the artist wants to reinstate in the art world.

It took the artist three years in Zurich, one of the global centers for banking and finance, to convert an old bank building into an atelier and studio. “It’s showing how people view the world through the eyes of an artist. It is about being part of the journey and the experience. It is about feeling what luxury is like,” he says.

Staying true to his African roots, McCreedy draws inspiration from Botswana, Nigeria and South Africa, which he expresses through abstract images.

“I love African and South African art. It is really stimulating for me and as a growing artist, I like to collect whatever I can afford. One day, I will create my own museum and show what I have from different parts of the world,” says McCreedy. Open to exploring more markets, McCreedy wishes to collaborate with African artists. He would not have it any other way.

Artist Conor McCreedy converted an old bank building into his studio and atelier in Zurich. Picture: Supplied

The world may present the artist with greater opportunities,but it cannot compete with the culture and the spirit of ubuntu [humanity]found in his country of birth, he explains.

“I miss good South African beer, I miss sitting on a Land Rover with no shirt on, drinking a beer. I miss the weather and the locals.”

But wherever McCreedy goes, he ensures his prized pair of sneakers is never too far away.

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