The clean streets and well-maintained roads that please visitors so much are just the beginning of the construction plans for the country. Those words we hear so often when discussing Rwanda – ‘highly ambitious’ – also refer to the Kigali City Master Plan, an urban planning project that sees Kigali completely transformed into a sleek, modern city with an efficient public transport network.
The plans have been designed by Oz architects and developed by Surbana, a Singapore-based firm, and are being realised slowly.
Even those won over by Kigali’s clean streets might feel the master plan is too ambitious. It shows Kigali as decentralised with designated areas for business, IT, industry, embassies, shopping and homes.
However there is very little room for public space and virtually no parks or publicly accessible green spaces at all. Critics say not only is it unrealistic, but it ignores the vast majority of the population who are too poor to afford the sparkling new apartment blocks that are part of the plan, and who already feel disenfranchised from and unwelcome in the smarter parts of the city.
When Kigali’s biggest tower block, Kigali City Tower, which features a cinema, supermarket and a mall, opened recently, one young male Kigali resident said: “Do we have to pay to be allowed inside? I don’t think people like me are welcome there. That’s for a different kind of Rwandan.”
A renewed focus on affordable housing, as directed by the President himself, will see more homes built, but even these are for middle-class families, rather than those affected by poverty. There are also claims that street children and homeless people who don’t fit in with the clean streets and gleaming modernity of the capital are arrested and locked up, and even that a directive has been issued which says people can’t be in the city centre barefoot. Street hawkers have certainly been made illegal, and women can often be seen fleeing the police with baskets on fruit still balanced on their heads.
But the pace of development continues nonetheless, although more so in Kigali than outside of the capital. Heavy construction is visible all over the city. A new Marriott hotel is being built in the centre of town, while the 2,600-seater Kigali Convention Centre with adjoining Radisson Blu hotel with 292 bedrooms and conference hall, is halfway to construction, on the site of former slums.
Figures from last year showed Rwanda had 370 registered hotels with a total of 6,700 rooms. There aren’t enough high-end hotels to meet demand and help Rwanda in its bid to become a regional conference hub.
In 2012, the tourism industry generated $281.8m, compared to $251.3m the previous year, making it Rwanda’s top forex earner. The government is targeting annual revenue of $860m by 2017. In 2012 around 97,000 tourists visited the country, while 422,000 business visitors were counted.
Regional banks and ATMs are springing up in towns across Rwanda, while the tourist boom has led to several luxury hotels being built across the country.
The World Bank recently invested in a feeder-road programme, to tarmac many of Rwanda’s smaller roads to boost trade and access to goods. Secondary school graduates are being encouraged to look at vocational subjects such as construction, plumbing and electricity, instead of the traditional route through university.
Nobody can doubt the amazing progress Rwanda has made in 20 short years. The country could so easily have become one that was known for its perpetual problems and violence.
But still the memories of 1994 are fresh, and people are proud of the way their country has dealt with the tragedy and at the incredible progress and development seen since then. President Kagame counts Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Warren Buffet amongst close friends and advisors, and he has made a business of attracting foreign aid and spending it wisely to keep it flowing.
Rwanda has made truly incredible progress since the dark days of 1994 and there’s no sign of it slowing down. Whether it will be an African success story remains to be seen, and a lot hinges on whether President Kagame will abide by the constitution and step down at the end of his second term in 2017. But Rwanda is rightly proud of what it has achieved so far, and feels it has a lot more work to do.