Focus and determination behind Rwanda’s transformation

In the summer of 1999, I made my first visit to Rwanda to attend a conference hosted by the Rwanda chapter of a business association. Over the course of three days, every Rwandese I met, including leaders of the emerging business community, shared their stories of tragic losses of family members and the destruction of their businesses during the very dark days of 1994.


However, despite the unimaginable losses they had experienced, the sense of optimism was evident about their country’s future. But, for a first time visitor like me, who was in the process of moving to Africa from the US, there was very little evidence on the ground to support their optimism. Even in Kigali, paved roads were very few and overall economic activity seemed subdued.    

Fast forward 15 years later and I am once again back in Rwanda – this time with my Transaction Advisory team to advise the government and the management of the state-owned RwandAir on the airline’s strategic vision.

To say Kigali has changed dramatically since my last visit will be an understatement. It’s cleaner than most big American cities and is better organised than many urban centres in Africa. The main roads are smoothly paved, new housing seems to have sprung up along the beautiful green valleys throughout the city and a new convention centre is nearing completion.

But beyond the physical infrastructure, what I found most encouraging is the focus and determination of the country’s top leadership and their young, but very smart, deputies.

One consistent message came across loud and clear in all my dealings with the leadership: Rwanda’s vision is to become a middle-income country by 2020 focusing on three pillars: high-end tourism, logistics and as the ICT hub for East Africa.

One of the strategies for achieving this vision is attracting FDI, which President Paul Kagame has taken the lead as the country’s link to global investors and appears regularly at high-profile international events including Davos and the Milken Institute’s Global Conference in the US. President Kagame is also the lead champion of RwandAir.

Clarity of purpose
Africa’s airline industry is littered with spectacular failures – Virgin Nigeria, Ghana Airways and Air Afrique are some notable examples. Hence, when the Rwandan government approached me to work with them on RwandAir’s strategy, I first had to ask the leadership the hard question as to why the government wants to own and operate an airline, which is amongst the most capital-intensive businesses in the world with very low margins at best.

What my team and I took away from those long discussions was an image of a determined leadership, which has a clear but realistic objective for leveraging RwandAir as a catalyst for economic transformation. “Rwanda maybe landlocked but it will not be airlocked” was the statement I heard many times from very senior government officials and the airline’s CEO and other executives.

The only other time I had seen similar determination and clarity of purpose was nine years earlier with the strategic transformation of Ethiopian Airlines, which, like RwandAir, is government owned.

Not coincidentally, President Kagame and the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia are said to have been close and considered to be the leading proponents of the ‘Developmental State’ economic model, which has delivered some of the highest GDP growth rates in the world for both countries over the past decade.

Rwanda is now one of the best places to do business in the world – outranking even France; and Ethiopia is the fourth-largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa with a $118bn GDP. The two countries also have one other important similarity: they are landlocked and, therefore, having a successful national airline is a must.

Some international analysts question Rwanda’s ability to sustain its economic growth. They usually cite its relatively small population and lack of natural resources.

But my view is that with the focus and determination of the country’s senior leadership, combined with flawless execution of its economic strategies, Rwanda is very likely to achieve its Vision 2020 goals. The tagline of RwandAir: “Fly our dream to the heart of Africa” can be a metaphor for the country’s strategy to capture the imagination not just of tourists but also global investors.

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