Rwanda rebuilds and re-brands
Fifteen years after the genocide, Rwanda has become a place of tourist hotels, gourmet cafes, wi-fi and shopping malls.
In 15 years, Rwanda has turned around from a reputation of genocide to create a place of tourist hotels, gourmet cafes, wi-fi, and shopping malls. The Takeaway talked with Jeff Chu, Senior Editor of Fast Company magazine about their story called “Rwanda Rising.” Rwandan President Paul Kagame is aggressively pursuing Western investors to turn Rwanda from an impoverished nation to a powerful popular brand.
While President Kagame likes to talk about the economic model of Singapore, Rwanda is unique in trying to develop from extreme poverty and tragedy in a short time. Rwanda is a tiny country and landlocked. Chu says Kagame is reaching out to investors in the U.S. “He spends a lot more time in Boston and Austin and Seattle courting CEOs than he does begging for aid like most African leaders.”
Dr. Eliane Ubalijoro, Professor at McGill University and advisor to President Kagame, has observed changes regularly. “I come to Rwanda probably about four times a year. And every time I come, I notice something new. I notice better service at the airport. I notice new buildings going up.”
Chu had the same impression in the capital city of Kigali. “I like to say Kigali is Africa that Americans can handle.” The city has wi-fi, 24-hour supermarkets, clean streets and landscaping. But outside the city, poverty is more obvious.
Chu says Kagame is offering a lot of hope. For investors, Rwanda can offer good coffee that is already sold in Starbucks and Costco. Coffee has brought a lot of foreign income to Rwanda in the absence of other natural resources. Kagame is working on technology and education.
Alex Kanyankole, head of the Rwanda coffee development authority lays out the challenge in the coffee market. “We need it to be sold as a brand, not as a commodity coming from anywhere, or which can come from anywhere. Because this is what really gives us a competitive and a distinctive advantage in the market.”
Chu says rebranding Rwanda will take a lot of time. But one of the appeals is that Rwanda makes a good comeback story. “Over time, they're hoping the memories will fade and we'll develop a new image of Rwanda as a place where premium coffee comes from and where other good things come from.”
This rebranding is going to take a lot of investment from companies all over the world. But Chu says it’s not a charitable venture. “Costco went there to buy coffee because they had a good product to buy at a good price. It's been profitable for Rwanda, but it's also been very profitable for Costco. The CEO of Costco told me they would've never gone in there if it didn't make them a lot of money.”
Rwanda will still have to deal with neighboring conflicts, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But they’re hoping to serve as a new model that depends on trade and manufacturing instead of aid.
Chu says President Kagame is one of the most outspoken African leaders opposing traditional aid. “Last year at the genocide commemorations he chided his countrymen saying you should be ashamed that taxpayers in foreign countries are helping to pay for this country.”
But statements like this set Rwanda apart from other African countries with a proactive image. “I think one of the great things about it is that it is counterintuitive,” says Chu. “You don't expect to have a happy story coming out of Africa, especially from a country that 15 years ago was such a basket case, where so many people died.”
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