Asel Myrzabekova was shocked when she arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, two years ago. It was her first time in Africa, and she expected to find dusty roads and city grime. Instead, she was welcomed by a litter-free city, efficient public transport and fancy coffee shops.
“It was definitely not what I was expecting,” Myrzabekova says, who moved to Kigali from Kyrgyzstan to work for the U.N.
Most visitors are surprised by the new face of Rwanda, which just commemorated the 20th anniversary of the genocide that claimed 800,000 lives in 100 days. Much of the recent coverage about that horrific event focused on the solemn memorials, but there’s another story to tell as well.
Having lost 10 percent of its population, the country was left impoverished and traumatized, and with a severe shortage of skilled labor. But the government’s continued efforts to upgrade infrastructure, improve cleanliness and ensure safety have turned Kigali into one of the fastest-developing cities on the continent and, in turn, it’s attracting an unprecedented number of foreigners.
We are seeing more and more foreigners of all nationalities moving in, especially Americans.
Rwanda is a small state, barely the size of Belgium, and a tenth of the country’s 11 million people live in the capital. And yet expats are easy to find in Kigali among its one million inhabitants. They tend to gather at popular hangouts like Papyrus or Heaven Bar. Until recently, Friday nights brought out the same foreign faces, but new faces are now appearing, and they range from American businessmen to German charity workers.
“We are seeing more and more foreigners of all nationalities moving in, especially Americans,” says Betty Mutesu, who works at the Spanish Embassy in Kigali. In 2013, the number of foreign visitors to Rwanda surged to more than a million a year for the first time, and hundreds of them have stayed.
This is both a cause and consequence of Rwanda being East Africa’s fastest-growing economy — a feat achieved with no oil or natural gas resources, relying instead on agricultural exports, tourism and tin mining. The World Bank estimates the nation’s growth will top 7 percent this year, and the number of Rwandans living in extreme poverty has been cut in half in the last 10 years.
Private investors are mostly attracted to the low-crime and low-corruption profile.
The country’s goal is to reduce its reliance on foreign aid and become a high-tech economy by attracting investment. Rwanda already ranks an impressive 45th in the World Bank’s index for ease of doing business, and is the fifth-best destination for investment in the world, according to the Baseline Profitability Index.
In 2013, Rwanda received about $450 million in foreign direct investment — a tenfold increase from what it received in 2001 — mostly for the growing information, communication and finance sectors. Firms like FedEx, Coca-Cola, Western Union and MoneyGram have set up shop there, and Swedish telecommunications giant Millicom has chosen to foster local entrepreneurship by developing a tech incubator in Kigali.
Now the government is trying to prompt more businesses to relocate to Rwanda by offering reduced tax rates for investors in energy and transport, and by modifying labor laws and making it easier for companies to hire foreigners.
But Kigali’s biggest advantage for business-minded expats may be its rule of law. “Private investors are mostly attracted to the low-crime and low-corruption profile,” explains Elizabeth Littlefield, president and CEO of Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
Other nations might have bigger economies and more natural resources, but Rwanda has managed to curb corruption like no other, by passing and upholding tough legislation that has sent corrupt ministers to jail. As a result, the watchdog group Transparency International reckons that the small East African state has less corruption than Greece or Italy.
I can even go for a jog at night without worrying.
Kigali is also extremely safe. Unlike Nairobi, Kenya, where radical Islamist group al-Shabab has been targeting Westerners in terrorist attacks (like last summer’s incident at Westgate mall), Kigali makes safety a high priority. The police presence is high, and motorcycle taxi drivers even carry spare helmets for passengers.
“I feel safer here than I do back at home,” says Myrzabekova. “I can even go for a jog at night without worrying at all.”
Amid the hills of the landlocked city sits Kigali City Tower, a 20-story office-and-retail complex that represents another of the capital’s attractions: infrastructure. A recent construction project to ease traffic congestion is being heralded by expats fed up with the usual pollution and traffic jams in places like Kampala, Uganda, or Dar el-Salam, Egypt.
“Roads are smooth like butter, people stop at the street lights … I’m from New York, and Kigali is definitely tidier,” says Walter Lamberson, a financial consultant for Dölberg, who has lived in both Nairobi and Kigali.
Traveling by air should soon be easier too. A new airport is in the works, and major airlines KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines have recently opened routes to Kigali. International hotel chains are following suit.
But the capital’s affluence might come at a price. While enjoying the benefits of a pristine and crime-free African hub, many expats have gotten the impression that President Paul Kagame and his administration maintain law and order at the expense of freedom of speech and information.
This is not really a democracy because no one can challenge his leadership.
“There is something that goes unspoken,” says Lamberson. “This is not really a democracy because no one can challenge his leadership. And when you ask about politics, you always get the exact same answers. It feels staged.”
The president, a former guerrilla fighter, has been repeatedly accused by the U.N. of supporting rebel groups in neighboring Congo and persecuting local dissidents. In the 2010 elections, the three major opposition parties were excluded from the ballot, and two of their leaders were imprisoned. Kagame won with 93 percent of the votes.
If the political climate worsens, it could eventually scare expats away, which would spell disaster for both tourism and foreign investment.
“[Investors] will not commit for the long term unless they have a deep confidence in the country’s governance and judicial systems,” says Littlefield.
Immune to criticism, Kagame continues to set increasingly ambitious goals for Rwanda. He hopes it will become a middle-income nation by 2020 and that, one day, Kigali might host the U.N.’s headquarters, which are currently in Nairobi.
Despite the questionable political climate, Rwanda opening its doors for business is an opportunity for the country to prosper — reducing the risk of new ethnic violence — and for foreigners to have a secure point of entry into the East African Community, a market of more than 130 million people.
As the Land of a Thousand Hills grows stable and rich, more expats are finding their home in Kigali, and a favorite table at Heaven Bar. Unlike tourists, they have come to see something even rarer than the famed silverback gorillas: a nation reinventing itself.
Why you should care
Because everything old is sometimes new again, and bygones can be bygones.