Rwanda’s World Economic Forum; farewell to Kigali and the soundtracks of Africa’s daily struggles

Some forum session are closed door for no discernible reason—why shutter a discussion about improving Africa’s trade competitiveness?

KIGALI: THE plainclothes Rwandan policeman will not entertain the idea of my taking a cab, insisting that he will instead drop me off. I am awfully impressed— it builds on the gracious hospitality around the World Economic Forum on Africa that visitors have been treated to.

The proposed mode of transport is a big fancy SUV reserved for the dozens of VIPs in attendance. But I am swiftly ejected from the cream leather seats when I won’t part with $50 as fare—having dug in with good reason as I had paid $50 for the inbound morning trip.

I hop onto the decidedly less luxurious but ubiquitous motorbike down the street, and we are soon roaring up and down the endless undulating hills that so mark out Rwanda, the wind in our faces. The meticulously numbered boulevards are a joy to ride on, devoid of both those African ever-presents—the pothole, and the kamikaze driver.

Kigali is notably cosmopolitan, the product of deliberate official policies to open it up to the rest of the continent. An increasing number of Rwandans speak Kiswahili, while business also got the memo: Kenyan banks nestle next to South African telcos and American-originated ones.

Safe even for strangers

The state is ever present in the streets—one feels it is not just because of the forum—but it all feels very safe even for strangers. We soon draw up to the hotel. Bed capacity has been strained by the influx of delegates, and as such prices have almost doubled overnight—Rwanda is famed for its zero tolerance to corruption, but not even Rwandans are averse to the opportunity to make some quick money.

Kigali’s hosting of WEF Africa is certainly a fillip for the local economy, but the real gains will be in the international burnishing of Brand Rwanda. Comparison with the Forum’s spiritual home of Switzerland have been quickly unfurled, and the authorities’ push to position the country as a tourist destination is certainly paying off,

The concept of the venue is both catchy and emblematic of Rwanda’s recent history—an African “village” rather hastily converted from what was a military compound. It is still a bit rough around the edges—all sessions just about miss their start times, while many are closed door for no discernible reason—why shutter a discussion about improving Africa’s trade competitiveness?

Aides and media handlers are also a bit overzealous, even if their clients look like they are just happy to be out in the sun and be accessible—WEF is the one event where CEOs and public figures are made available to journalists with abandon, you could say many are hawked about for interviews.

But it is all very easy to navigate, and you cannot fault the effort, warmth and the airy feel about itself; it is certainly not the stiff version that was the Cape Town edition last year.

Kagame is The Man

The discussions are certainly interesting. Everyone gravitates to Paul Kagame’s tune, when he protests that “this thing”—his impending third term—was forced upon him by the people, even when he informed them that he was having challenges packaging it internationally. Close by, man-ever-around-Africa Tony Blair dutifully moderates, as deep-pocketed philanthropist Howard Buffet declares that investors always seek predictability.

In another plenary, anti-poverty campaigner and Oxfam chief Winnie Byanyima spars with African billionaire Tony Elumelu over tax dodging, on a panel that has also seated the wealthy president of Kenya. “Those who have money, like my friend Tony here who is part of the 1% [richest segment of global population] should pay their fair share,” Byanyima states.

Elumelu protests that it is wrong to “criminalise” wealth, especially that from productive activity, as the private sector is key to African growth.

Ethiopia’s prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn is scheduled to be a speaker on another panel, but his name placard mysteriously disappears, despite having being sighted around the village. It is easy to conclude that his handlers belatedly discovered that he would be the only head of state on stage.

Another forum has panelists with diametrically opposing—and entrenched—views on Africa’s manufacturing future. For one Western-based consultant, it is “a very complex” undertaking. The other, an African manufacturer, says it is “very easy” if one has the belief.

But it all adds up to some deeply engaging and relevant discussions around the continent—with the usual refrain from speakers that “this time we must implement”.

But Rwanda has certainly implemented and delivered on its holding of the high-profile forum, and will be delightedly basking in its limelight for months to come.

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