KIGALI, Rwanda — Young, business-savvy and geeky as Silicon Valley’s finest, Viateur Mugenzi is a one-man incarnation of the new-look Rwanda.
A telecom administrator by day, the boyish 32-year-old is a partner in three start-up companies by night, including a venture that uses open-source technology to translate software into Kinyarwanda — the principal language of Rwanda’s rural population.
“Now, people in the villages who don’t speak French or English will have access to IT,” Mugenzi said. “This is where the country is headed.”
It’s an attitude that echoes the Rwandan zeitgeist, thanks to President Paul Kagame’s shrewdly branded vision to transform this densely packed nation of 10 million from an agricultural backwater into a middle-income country by 2020.
Given the spatial constraints of a farming expansion, the strategy seeks to place Rwanda as a regional leader in sectors not linked to land — including information and communication technology, logistics, financial services and education. The commonly cited model is that of Singapore and other East Asian Tigers — peasant societies as late as the 1960s that became leaders in high-tech and joined the rich world in little more than a generation.
This may seem implausible in a nation that, according to data from the International Monetary Fund, is still unable to properly feed a third of its population. Yet since Kagame assumed the presidency in 2000, Rwanda has made considerable progress.
Today, Kigali bears little resemblance to the shattered city inherited by Kagame’s Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) at the end of the infamous 1994 genocide. Streets are cleaner than in most Western cities. Traffic laws are rigidly obeyed. Wi-Fi is available at many hotels and restaurants. Yellow cranes sprout from the hilltop city center aside budding skyscrapers — a testament to growth in real GDP that has averaged 8 percent per year over the last half decade.
Across Rwanda poverty has fallen in both urban and rural areas. Subsistence farmers have benefited from government-led initiatives to increase fertilizer usage. Coffee, in the doldrums for years after the genocide, is now a thriving cash crop thanks to a strategic shift toward production of a higher-end washed variety.
Rwanda’s political stability has prompted a boom in tourism and Rwanda has banked considerably on the $500-price tag of its famed gorilla treks. All this, said Eric Kacou, managing director of OTF Group, an international strategy firm that advises the Rwandan government, has helped the country move on from what’s long been its unsavory reputation for genocide.
“Brands play a big role in how a nation is perceived,” he said. “Rwanda’s export strategy has been designed to help change the image of the country.”
As Kacou is first to admit, Rwanda Inc is about more than just primates and four-dollar lattes. Though Western-based human rights groups are quick to denounce Kagame’s bent for heavy-handedness, the gaunt, bespeckled president has won over a cadre of friends in high places — from American evangelist Rick Warren to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The pull, said Kacou, is a low-corruption, forward thinking government, which — on a continent where graft is often seen as a fundamental right of office — is a legitimate novelty product. In Kagame’s administration, ministers caught with their hands in public coffers can expect no mercy. Officials seeking fleets of luxury vehicles must live vicariously through their counterparts in Nairobi or Kampala.
Rooting out bureaucratic rot, of course, does not guarantee a nation’s success. Despite the Rwandan government’s lucid vision and Kagame’s international appeal, critics point out that the parallels to Asian Tigers are somewhat dubious. Singapore’s rapid growth, for instance, was built on access to the sea, an initial shift toward export-oriented manufacturing and a comparatively well-developed education system. Landlocked Rwanda, meanwhile, is faced with some of the world’s highest shipping costs and a sizable skills deficit.
Yet the Singapore analogy is not meant to be literal, said Kacou. “It is more on the mindset front. If somebody else has done it, it can be done.”
Rwanda, he added, enjoys its own strategic advantages, including a well-developed road network, a fiber optic cable soon to reach Kigali, proximity to the mineral-rich eastern Congo and regional trade opportunities buoyed by a new East African common market. Above all, he said, Rwanda’s greatest asset is its government’s strategic vision, including a current push to tackle its biggest weakness — skills — with substantial reforms and investments in education.
As budding entrepreneur Viateur Mugenzi bears witness, this vision is not confined to the public sector.
“Rwanda’s future is entrepreneurship,” he said. “Rwandans have many ideas — we just need the skills to implement them. When that happens, companies like Microsoft will be coming here in search of Rwandan talent.”