Rwanda: commercial beyond its high profile Arsenal campaign

Karen Smith avatar


Even I – as a non-football fan – had noticed the unusual tourism advertising campaign launched by Rwanda last year to reach the Premier League’s massive audience. The move received mixed reviews but reflects the invest-to-succeed ethos of Africa’s second fastest growing economy. To put a twist on that rather patronising term, the overwhelming thought when I arrived in Kigali last week is “this is not Africa” … as I know it. To be fair, a large chunk of my African experience has been in Malawi, which is one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries on the continent, but even compared to Nairobi or Dar es Salaam, from the moment you arrive at Arrivals at Kigali airport, with no scrabbling around for customs forms or chaotic baggage conveyors, there is a distinctly different feeling.

I visited the country for the first time last week at the invitation of Lloyd le Page, who is both a Tony Blair Institute (TBI) consultant and the strategic advisor to the CEO of the Rwandan National Agricultural Export Board (NAEB). NAEB is one arm of the Rwandan Ministry of Agriculture (the other being the Rwanda Agriculture Board) and as I met various members of their planning team I learnt about their bold targets, including a tenfold increase in horticultural production by 2024. Since last summer, NAEB has been working on a concept dubbed the GlobalGro Agribusiness Innovation Hub, a public-private partnership to accelerate existing agribusiness and food companies, especially related to increasing Rwanda’s agriculture and food exports, while serving Rwanda’s farmers. This concept is in the scoping phase but is attracting attention and support from donors and other government ministries, and NAEB hopes to launch it in full this summer.

NAEB is also currently developing a Rwandan quality marque and has its own pack house which exporters can use on a pay-per-use basis. The agency is on the road to become self-sustaining via donor project funding as well as through tea and coffee levies. Through NAEB I had the opportunity to meet with a number of horticultural companies who are already exporting, including Nature Fresh Foods, Excella Produce and Garden Fresh. I also met the CEO of ‘Get It’, a local company supplying high quality fruit and vegetables to domestic hotels and restaurants through an online portal. As a South African he commented that he was constantly impressed at how Rwandans cut through bureaucracy with pragmatic solutions. He was also delighted that there were initiatives such as government irrigation schemes that the company could benefit from to grow new crops such as ginger for export

While I was in Kigali the Africa Fine Coffee Association (AFCA) was holding its 17th conference at the Kigali Convention Centre, so I popped in to talk about our digital supply chain management solutions with some of the attendees.
NAEB had a strong presence in support of the Rwandan coffee industry and there were a wide range of other producers and service providers from across the continent.

To grow Rwanda’s economy, and its agroprocessing capabilities, at the ambitious rates discussed, then development of the energy sector will be critical to the strategy; the country’s current national electrification rate is approximately 42% (31% on grid and 11% off-grid). I met with Gaelle Nsengiyumva who leads the Rwanda Electricity Sector Strengthening Project. She told me the energy sector also has a stretch target: to ensure energy access is available to 100% of the Rwandan population within five years, by 2024! The project is investing in infrastructure and capacity building, as the Ministry of Infrastructure is facilitating the resettlement of some remote households to more accessible locations. The bulk of Rwanda’s power is generated through hydro schemes, but the country uniquely sources energy from methane which is extracted from the gas-rich water drawn from the bottom of Lake Kivu.

Gaelle commented that the biggest challenge for Rwanda has been a lack of skills – particularly at tertiary level. The initial tranche of graduates supported to attend overseas universities in the early 2000’s did not return home, but now young professional Rwandans are seeing the opportunities that their country offers. Gaelle and her counterparts have returned from their scholarships in the US to find rewarding positions at home. Her husband, Blaise Gasabira, who heads the Treasury department at I&M Bank (Rwanda) plc,
has benefitted from the African Leadership University (ALU), an all African MBA course whose mission is to produce 3 million young African leaders over the next 50 years. The ALU’s second campus was inaugurated in 2017 in Kigali.

Of particular interest to Smallholdr as a company are tech skills, and on that front we caught up with Alex Ntale, CEO of Rwanda’s ICT Chamber of Commerce, outside the Africa Tech Summit. He explained that a major part of his remit is to develop a cohort of developers and technologists to build Rwanda’s ICT capacity, a key building block for the country to capitalise on the latest global digital innovations.

Smallholdr will be engaging further with NAEB as they explore opportunities to use software such as ours to track production across the country. With our mobile app, exporters could manage their extension teams, capture and monitor smallholder transactions as well as gather information to predict yields. This information could then be cost-effectively aggregated at NAEB level to vastly improve logistical planning for product exports. The GlobalGro project, with buy-in from relevant government departments and private sector stakeholders, looks to be a well-timed strategic platform which could offer investment, incubation, skills and facilitation to turn such a concept into reality.

In addition to the potential market for our product in Rwanda, the fast-paced growth, vibrancy, ambition and sheer efficiency of the administration – only 6 hours to register a new business! – has also provided us with some serious food for thought in terms of an ideal location to develop a hub on the continent. I also noted that Rwandair is also about to launch direct flights from London to Kigali without the layover in Brussels. I suspect we will be back!