Landing in Kigali at night is like swooping down on a bed of stars. The land of a thousand hills twinkles with lights rivalling the skies above. On this particular night, the eve of the city’s first-ever World Economic Forum (WEF), immigration lines at the tiny but gleaming Kigali International Airport are long – mostly business travelers with thick passports and thick accents – but the wait, thankfully, isn’t. Staff quickly issue visas on arrival, Rwanda one of the few African countries to offer this ease of access.
The country has long been preparing for this day, and that first important step to flexing its economic muscle on a global stage. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s famous quote, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” would certainly apply here; WEF was Rwanda’s ticket to even greater global glory, beyond the 2Gs it had been known for thus far – the genocide and the gorillas.
The packed hotels and packed agendas over the next three days, May 11-13, justified its place on the WEF map. The delegates spoke, the presidents nodded, and there was affirmation everywhere, at forums, sessions, breakfasts and dinners: that Rwanda is “a beautiful country, so clean, so green, so safe”, but more importantly, a country that’s perhaps a model for the rest of Africa, and the world, for its progress over the last 22 years since the genocide against the Tutsi battered its being.
There was lavish praise also for President Paul Kagame for spearheading this growth. At the packed interactive session on African partnerships on day one moderated by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Kagame said: “Twenty two years ago, we had to involve everyone’s participation… we lost the past, but needed to regain the future.”
And Blair closed: “Twenty two years ago, if you said a couple of decades later, you would be hosting the World Economic Forum, people would have been surprised… it’s an amazing country that has seen extraordinary progress. You have done a great job.”
Toronto-based entrepreneur Sunir Chandaria said post-session: “They have moved mountains to make this happen… Rwanda has taken a leap with digitization amongst African countries.”
The Kigali edition was the 26th World Economic Forum on Africa, themed ‘Connecting Africa’s Resources Through Digital Transformation’. Some 1,200 delegates from 70 countries jetted into the small African city. In attendance were names like Tony Elumelu, Tonye Cole, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Howard Buffett, Pravin Gordhan and Cherie Blair. The venue at Camp Kigali, rechristened the Kigali Conference and Exhibition Village, had a tented concept to stir a sense of déjà vu of WEF’s annual Davos outing.
From the Alps of Switzerland to the hills of Rwanda, the forum did manage to generate its own share of excitement.
Against the backdrop of Kigali’s rolling hills – mostly red, not green, owing to the profusion of red-roofed homes on the slopes – the African plenary unfolded. Gun-toting men in military fatigues guarded the main venue and the five-star Serena Hotel, where most of the 10 visiting African heads of state were staying, and which was the venue for the stately events and dinners throughout WEF. One couldn’t get to the lobby without bag and body thoroughly searched.
Issues around women and youth featured prominently throughout the conference, not surprising, considering the host country boasts more women in parliament, in the ministries and the judiciary.
The first side event, held on the eve of WEF, was ‘Women Creating Wealth’, by the Graça Machel Trust, supported by the Rwanda chapter of New Faces, New Voices, a pan-African advocacy group expanding the role and influence of women in the financial sector. Machel, also a co-chair of WEF on Africa, said: “Women are power, women are energy, women are creativity…”
Arjuna Costa, Partner at Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm with a long history of investing in Africa, who was the only male member on the panel, spoke to FORBES AFRICA: “It’s an exciting time to be a young entrepreneur in Africa, especially with the world moving towards more and more mobile, Africa in many ways being the pioneer of things like mobile systems, and also creating rich ecosystems on which more innovation is coming… It’s exciting as it’s home-grown innovation tackling global challenges with local solutions but still leveraging the power of technology.”
On day one of WEF, the Youth Forum, a breakfast event hosted by Rwanda’s First Lady Jeannette Kagame, saw a full auditorium at the Serena that was, for a change, an equal turnout of both male and female achievers.
In attendance throughout the conference were WEF’s Young Global Leaders (YGLs) and Global Shapers; there were so many, you could tell them from a distance.
One of them, Gerald Chirinda, a 20-something Harare-based entrepreneur standing in line for the security check at the Serena that night, for the social entrepreneurship dinner hosted by South Africa’s Motsepe Foundation, explained: “You see, we all look hungry… Hungry for power, and change… that’s why you recognize us.”
The one word used – and perhaps over-used – at the forum was ‘leapfrogging’. At one point during the interactive session on the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the venue’s Akagera hall, the forum’s co-chair, Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), even said he didn’t believe in the word.
“Even a frog can’t leap that far,” he said to laughter.
“We cannot industrialize unless we solve access to electricity,” he said. One of the greatest priorities for the continent is electrification to enable digital technology – 500 million are without power.
“Africa is tired of being in the dark,” said Adesina. The AfDB is spending $12.5 billion in the next five years on its New Deal on Energy.
It’s crucial the Fourth Industrial Revolution “does not leave anyone behind”, said Machel, referring to Africa’s 52% female population.
At the same session, Kagame mentioned “people technology”. “Development is more than money or machines or tech. It’s about good people and the lives they lead every day,” he said.
Among the new initiatives unveiled, was the WEF-led Internet For All, a collection of best practices from around the world on how public-private collaboration has enabled internet access and adoption.
The forum’s Africa Skills Initiative brought organizations including MMI, GE, Google, Agility, the Rockefeller Foundation, Yellowwoods and the University of the Witwatersrand together to form a coalition committed to tackling Africa’s shortage of future-oriented STEM and ICT skills, while the Rockefeller Foundation announced a $1 million Cassava Innovation Challenge, aimed at finding ways to improve the shelf life of this staple crop.
Visitors to Rwanda’s first Marriott hotel that opened in time for WEF were awe-struck by its grandeur. Given the number of high-profile events the country has on the cards, hotels of this caliber are now necessary to meet the demands of discerning business travelers. The Radisson is set to open for the African Union summit here in July, right next to the Agaseki basket-inspired conference center, which was lit throughout the duration of WEF as a beacon of light and hope, hope for a tomorrow that has already come in Rwanda.