It’s amazing how the fate of nations could change in the span of decades. In 1994, the tiny central African nation of Rwanda seemed to suddenly succumb to a level of carnage not seen since the Second World War (notwithstanding other under-the-radar conflicts like the Congo War).
Over a period of just 100 days, up to 1 million people were slaughtered by paramilitaries and even friends and neighbors, mostly by machetes and small arms. Already poor and politically dysfunctional, Rwanda was ignored and let down by the international community even in its most calamitous state—how could it ever recover from such an orgy of bloodshed and neglect?
Well, close to thirty years later, recover it has. While undemocratic and undeveloped, it has made incredible strides for a nation that faced one of the most horrific genocides in human history. How could Rwanda, of all places, become so stable and economically sophisticated?
“There are a few fundamentals you have to understand. Firstly, our country is the same size as the U.S. state of Maryland, but our population is around 12 million people. Secondly, we have no natural resources — no oil or gold or anything else that countries benefit from,” explains Claudette Irere, director general at Rwanda’s Ministry of Youth and Information and Communication Technology. “This means the only way for us to move forward and to build our future is to empower people and make good use of technology. With this strategy, we are shifting our country from an agrarian economy to a knowledge-based economy.”
Rwanda is beginning to leapfrog developed countries in fundamental areas such as smart city infrastructure, vocational training, and strategic foreign investment. As of January this year, 4G/LTE networks cover more than 95 percent of the country, and a mix of public and private players are working together on a national roll-out of fiber-optic broadband. As its citizens and businesses get connected, Kigali is becoming an African hub for multinational tech companies, including Google, Facebook, and Amazon.
Between 2001 and 2014, Rwanda achieved an annual growth rate of 9 percent and earned a global reputation as an attractive business destination. According to the World Bank’s 2018 Ease of Doing Business Index, Rwanda has risen above countries like Italy, Belgium, and Israel to become the 41st most business-friendly nation on earth. Rwanda was also the index’s biggest business reformer, with activities like starting up, registering property, paying taxes, and enforcing contracts all becoming increasingly easier in the country.
“Urbanization is becoming more of a challenge for things like traffic and public transportation. This creates a lot of opportunities for technology and innovation,” Irere says. “Working with global companies that lead in areas such as the internet of things (IoT) is helping us understand the problems we must solve before our city grows beyond our control.”
Kigali has even developed a culture of digital entrepreneurship that seems straight out of Silicon Valley.
One local company that’s making the most of Kigali’s digital infrastructure is ride-hailing app SafeMotos, founded by a Canadian entrepreneur who fell in love with the city. Road traffic collisions are a significant problem in Rwanda and its neighboring countries, with 40 percent more road deaths occurring per 100,000 people than in low- and middle-income nations in any other part of the world. To combat this problem, SafeMotos provides drivers with smartphones and pulls data from an app to measure their performance on trips. Customers are connected only with drivers who meet a certain safety threshold — an algorithmic score of at least 90 out of 100.
To be sure, Rwanda is far from idyllic. The moniker “Singapore of Africa” is apt in more ways than one: Not only is it an island of relative stability, development, and technological progress, but like the southeast Asian city state, it is also low-key authoritarian. Its president, Paul Kagame, who is credited with helping defeat the genocidal regime and carrying the country though to its recovery, has been in power since 1994—and is slated to remain in power until 2034, thanks to changes in the constitution that he has presided over. He won 99 percent of the vote in the most recent election, while critics from journalists to government officials have been imprisoned for their insolence; some may even have been assassinated.
The country is even pioneering the use of drones to deliver medical supplies to remote communities and enforce its COVID-19 lockdown. By the standards of Africa and even the world, Rwanda has one of the lowest rates of corruption, which no doubt accounts for a lot of its business success.
“The most obvious example of this was the inquest into the assassination of Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s former head of external intelligence, who was strangled in a South African five-star hotel on New Year’s Eve 2013. In January 2019 the case opened in a courtroom on the outskirts of Johannesburg, a city where every news agency and broadcaster, from AP to Xinhua, AFP to Reuters, the BBC to DPA, has an office. It was a story on a par with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi or the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in terms of international interest, massively diplomatically embarrassing to the Rwandan government — the South African Hawks hold it directly responsible — and the courtroom was a ten minute taxi ride from various well-staffed newsrooms. When I turned up, I was astonished by the pathetic press turnout. At first I assumed that the victim’s family and lawyers just hadn’t been very efficient at getting the word out, but if anything, press attendance got worse as the days passed and more and more hugely awkward details — all of them wonderfully quotable as they were being revealed in court — were brought to light. A massive opportunity missed.”
Such repression is not only obviously unjust and problematic in its own right, but it threatens the country’s incredible progress over the last 26 years since the genocide. Rwandans have demonstrated remarkable resilience, innovation, and creativity, but all that will be hard to maintain under the shadow of such a paranoid and stifling regime. I can only hope this promising success story can expand to more than just economics and include a free and democratic country—where such potential and prosperity can truly be unleashed.
Source: Lauren Razavi