Rwanda has much in common with Singapore – it’s clean, green and safe – and has managed to attract some pioneering Singaporeans to set up business ventures there.
THEY CALL RWANDA the Land of a Thousand Hills – for obvious reasons – but this small (26,338 square kilometres) land-locked nation in the heart of Africa has a somewhat more surprising unofficial name: The Second Singapore.
One generation after political unrest, armed struggle and subsequent genocide decimated its population and displaced many more, Rwanda has worked hard to reconcile, reconstruct and steer a determined path towards recovery and beyond. Along the way, the government of President Paul Kagame has taken a page from the playbook of a country it openly admires: Singapore.
What does a country in Equatorial Africa, whose people not only know the Singapore Story but enthuse about turning Rwanda into the Singapore of Africa, possibly have in common with a Little Red Dot some 8,000 km and an ocean away (in more ways than one)?
For one thing, the country (population 12 million) is routinely rated the safest on the continent. Visitors to the capital Kigali won’t fail to notice the sense of order, the abundance of greenery and the well-lit city streets that appear to be scrubbed daily. And when it comes to paperwork, there is a dutiful compliance with myriad rules and regulations.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was scheduled to visit Rwanda in October during a tour of East Africa, but the trip has now been postponed. Still, there has been a strengthening of economic ties between the two countries. The Rwanda Development Board (RDB) is modelled in part on Singapore’s Economic Development Board and in recent years a few pioneering Singaporeans have started business ventures there.
DOING BUSINESS IN RWANDA
Some live in Rwanda while others, like Lam Shumei and Esther Su, go there on a regular basis. Ms Lam, whose father Larry Lam founded port operations group Portek (which has a strong presence in Rwanda), started modern poultry farm PEAL (Poultry East Africa Ltd) in late-2014. She is known in local media circles as ‘Madame Poulet’ and has helped to reduce the price of chicken (considered a premium meat in Rwanda) by a third.
Mrs Su felt compelled to help ordinary Rwandans improve their lot in life by starting The Apiary, a social enterprise that works with local cooperatives to school farmers on modern beekeeping methods and improve honey production.
Meanwhile, a handful of Singaporeans call Rwanda home. “The country is clean, the roads are good and I really enjoy the weather here,” says Jonathan Wong, a Singaporean businessman and well-known figure around town who has lived in Kigali since 2013. “When I first came to visit, I realised that it’s a lot like Singapore.”
Mr Wong, 41, had a consumer electronics business in neighbouring Uganda before moving to Kigali. “My initial plan was to push the ICT (information and communication technology) business but I discovered the market was already quite developed,” he says. “Then I noticed the used car market had potential because a lot of expats who move here don’t know about documentation and how the system works – I make it easier for them.”
He adds: “People are very friendly and I like the cleanliness – I feel safer here than I do in Singapore,” he says. “My friends and family thought I was very brave to step out of my comfort zone – I told my mother that I just want to give it a shot in a different part of the world.”
Jain Sugu is another Singaporean who has carved a niche for herself in Rwanda. Together with a local partner, she and her Singapore-based brother started PAL (Pan-African Logistics), providing comprehensive logistical services within the region, shipping goods through Dubai and Singapore. The company employs about 85 local staff.
“Everybody needs logistics, it’s the best business to be in,” says Ms Sugu. “Africa is the new frontier continent – this is where business will grow for the next 30 years.” She adds, “In Africa, Rwanda is the only country with an 85 per cent good government system. The government really safeguards investors and yes there are challenges, but they will help to solve them.”
Getting things done the way she’s used to back home takes more effort in Rwanda, says Ms Sugu. “We come from a country where they want everything chop-chop. Sometimes we have to take risks but the business climate is promising.” She adds: “The country has a development plan called Vision 2050 and they are working towards it – they want to follow the Singapore model.”
Fellow Singaporean Kasi Muthiah is deputy CEO at Magerwa, a unit of Portek that manages a bonded warehouse in Kigali. The dry port facility in Kigali handles most of the goods that are imported to and exported from the country. “Rwanda is unique – some people call it Africa Lite,” says Mr Muthiah. “The peace, the calm, the weather – there are so many positives. Most millennials think of themselves as global citizens, so they don’t expect to be in one career all their lives – we’re just looking to make an impact.”
Lucky Cheong is an aviation consultant who arrived in Kigali in 2016. Among the several hats he wears – all in the service of Rwandan government subsidiaries – he conducts airport operations at Kigali International Airport, coordinates operations at national carrier RwandAir and is CEO of ATL, a company that handles aviation logistics. He is also involved in setting up a new international airport that is slated to open in 2020.
“This place is still quite inaccessible and it’s not such an easy place to do business, but the ambitions are there,” says Mr Cheong. “Rwanda faces more challenges than Singapore did in 1965 – there is no natural hinterland to fall back on and the genocide wiped out a lot of the talent pool for middle and senior management.”
He continues: “There’s still some discomfort in letting private companies do their own thing, and anti-corruption practices stifle company growth. On the other hand, corruption is very limited.” At some point, the comparisons to Singapore should stop and Rwanda will forge its own path, says Mr. Cheong. “The president is very much a techie guy but it’s hard for the people to catch up. This is a country in a big hurry.”
GETTING OUT OF THE COMFORT ZONE
Lynette Lim, a former producer at Mediacorp and ESPN, works as communications manager at Ni Nyampinga and Girl Effect, an independent organisation and youth media brand aimed at nurturing young girls and helping them reach their potential. ‘We disseminate content that inspires girls to be more aware,” says Ms Lim, who has also done humanitarian work in the past.
“Those projects are heavier on development and I prefer to work in the communities,” she says, adding that whenever the Singaporeans in Rwanda gather, the talk inevitably centres on food – you can take the Singaporean out of Singapore, but you can’t take Singapore out of the Singaporean.
Darryl Kuek and Sara Oon are other Singaporeans willing to embrace a drastic change in working environment. Mr Kuek arrived in the country two months ago as managing director of Inyange Industries, a leading food processing company whose products are ubiquitous in the country – mineral water, fruit juices and dairy products all come under the brand.
“It was a chance to get involved with a business I’m familiar with,” says Mr Kuek, who has worked with Cold Storage and the QAF group. “There are lots of opportunities here for food processing and there are some parallels between Rwanda and Singapore – it’s a small enough country in terms of adjustment.”
Ms Oon is a former Hong Kong-based investment banker and a founder of NISK Capital, a regional firm (with its HQ in Nairobi) that works with startups in the region to raise financing. “There’s such a lack of financing here – it’s like supplying water in the desert,’ she says. “There is a lot of overseas money but they’re saying there are no investible projects in Africa – we need to find clients we can close deals on.”
She adds: “Every country has unique challenges – Rwanda feels like the smallest place I’ve ever lived in. We are a minority within the expat community because we’re here for business while most expats are NGOs or diplomats – it’s a different mindset. Rwanda is one of the tougher markets because it’s mostly government-controlled, and business people don’t like that. From an FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) standpoint though, Africa is really the last frontier.”
But Rwanda is no hardship post, says Ms Oon. “It’s very comfortable here and there’s definitely a culture of cleanliness – if they had better healthcare it would be a good country to live in. This is the place to base yourself to access the region.”
KIGALI & ENVIRONS
Chances are your previous knowledge of Rwanda might have been limited to watching Gorillas in the Mist or Hotel Rwanda, a drama set during the genocide and filmed on location at the Hotel des Mille Collines, which remains a popular tourist spot and expat hangout, sited on a hillside near the city centre.
Kigali is the fast-developing heart of the country, a bustling city of about 745,000 and – if its municipal boundaries are included – about the same size as Singapore. The streets are impeccably clean and there are pockets of greenery all around. The more desirable residential districts – invariably on hilltops with sweeping views of the city – have a distinctive charm.
From the rooftop of the Ubumwe Grande Hotel in the city centre, it’s possible to pick out about two dozen of the country’s legendary hills. On one of them stands the Kigali Convention Centre, a distinctive dome-like structure (inspired by traditional Rwandan architecture) that is a symbol of the new Rwanda. Also visible are modern buildings such as Kigali City Tower and sprawling housing developments like Vision City.
On another hill is a more poignant reminder of the recent past – the Kigali Genocide Memorial, a centre of remembrance for the victims of the 100-day nightmare in 1994 when an estimated one million people were killed. The memorial is a dignified, necessary reminder of an event that has scarred the country’s psyche and qualifies as ground zero for its citizens.
There are other, more typical symbols of Rwanda. High-rise buildings are still relatively rare, but one common feature of daily life comes in the form of motorcycle taxis and their green-helmeted riders who pick up fares all over the city. For locals, hopping on a ‘moto’ is the cheapest and most convenient way to navigate city streets, especially those long uphill stretches.
Visit one of the markets around town to experience a slice of local life – the vibrant Nyabugogo market is the largest of them – while a one-stop place for tribal arts and crafts can be found at Caplaki, a cooperative of former street stalls where traditional agaseke baskets woven from sisal and papyrus tree fibre are the souvenirs of choice.
Venture beyond Kigali and you will be rewarded with well-maintained, traffic-free roads, rolling hills and regulation views of agricultural land interrupted by small towns and villages perched on ridge tops. Access to remote villages can be challenging and visitors will need to endure bone-rattling rides – locals call them African massages – along dusty dirt tracks.
Roadside shopfronts are painted completely in single colours like red, yellow or blue – each colour representing a well-known local brand such as a telco or a beer company. Locals walk everywhere with jerrycans of water, woven baskets and sacks of goods balanced expertly atop their heads. There are no plastic bags in sight though – they have been banned throughout the country.
NYUNGWE NATIONAL PARK & LAKE KIVU
Tourism in Rwanda has long centred on the country’s star visitor attraction and major source of foreign currency: the mountain gorillas inhabiting the forested slopes of the Virunga massif, a volcano range that straddles Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A gorilla trek is the highlight of any trip, but visitors with a few more days to spare have other options to choose from.
Safari lovers in search of Big Five animals can travel east of Kigali to Akagera National Park in Rwanda’s Eastern Province on the border with Tanzania but for a taste of the high country, nature lovers can drive in a south-westerly direction towards Nyungwe National Park, about 250 kms from Kigali. This 1,000-square-km tract of montane forest is home to 13 primate species including chimpanzees, colobus monkeys and mountain monkeys.
The undulating landscape surrounding the park is characterised by picturesque tea plantations reminiscent of hill country in Sri Lanka but once inside, hiking trails and dense forest beckon. The forest is also home to a variety of giant trees and 275 species of birds.
The park’s highest point is Mount Bigugu (2,925 metres) but any activity, whether a mountain trek, canopy walk or an excursion to a primate colony, is sure to yield satisfying results. In addition, travellers accustomed to luxury digs can stay in some style at nearby Nyungwe House, a newly-renovated property located within a working tea plantation that is slated to open this weekend.
One lasting memory occurs on a Sunday when, drawn by the sound of singing, we drop in on a service at a simple village church, the Free Methodist Church of Rwanda (Catholicism is the main religion in Rwanda). Between sermons, the congregation’s choir sings with power, grace and undisguised enthusiasm, their voices ringing out in unison with the sound of leaves rustling in the trees from a nearby forest.
Huye, a small town on the road between Nyungwe and Kigali, was previously known as Butare and was once the colonial capital of Rwanda. Artifacts and exhibitions in the town’s Ethnographic Museum provide insight into the country’s cultural heritage. Closer to Kigali, the former royal capital Nyanza is home to the King’s Palace Museum, where a reconstruction of a traditional royal palace complex – complete with a compound of distinctive long-horned domestic cattle – can be explored. Next door, the western-style palace of King Mutara III Rudahigwa, built in 1932, can also be visited.
From Nyungwe, it’s not far to the southern end of Lake Kivu, the largest of Rwanda’s 23 lakes and roughly half of which lies over the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are several towns along the lake, which extends about 90 km north to the most developed of them, Gisenyi (also known as Rubavu).
Here at 1,500 metres, the temperature is refreshing and small hotels – ideal for weekend getaways – line the lake. Attractions include kayaking expeditions and the Nyamyumba Hot Springs, a simple spot beside the lake where locals are happy to offer a stress-relieving foot massage and mud bath. Many restaurants in the area specialise in local seafood, especially the sardine-like fish known as sambaza, endemic to the lake and oh-so tasty. Diners looking for bigger fish to fry can opt for tilapia, which are farmed extensively in the lake. Wash it all down with a cold bottle of Mutzig, the European-style beer that is brewed locally in a factory by the lake.
VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK
Without doubt, the mountain gorillas of the Volcanoes National Park, which spans 16,000 hectares and comprises five of the eight volcanoes in the Virunga massif, can be credited with putting Rwanda on the tourist map – with an assist from Dian Fossey, the primatologist who spent almost two decades studying their behaviour and advocating their conservation before she was killed in the park in 1985.
Since embarking on a programme to habituate the gorilla families that live in these mountains in the north of the country, Rwanda has successfully increased the population and developed a thriving tourist business in the process. There are some 480 mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, out of a total population estimated at 880, with 12 habituated families – last year, they were visited by more than 22,000 people.
Each morning at 7 am, up to 80 tourists with permits for the day (as part of its high-end tourism strategy, the RDB recently doubled the fee to US$1,500 per person) will gather at the park’s dispersal centre in Kinigi, where officials assign gorilla-tracking groups to each gorilla family – a maximum of eight people plus guide per group, which then head to the last-known location of the family they have been assigned.
After picking up porters at our designated location, we hike up the lower slopes of Mount Karisimbi (at 4,507 metres the tallest peak in Rwanda), traverse rocky paths and fertile terraced fields for a couple of hours until reaching the edge of a bamboo forest at about 2,700 metres. Mountain gorillas only exist at these elevations and getting there is no walk in the park – so come prepared.
We are joined by forest rangers – the gorillas’ movements are constantly monitored – who then cut us a path through dense vegetation until we reach our goal: a 24-member family called the Pablo Group (named for a former silverback), resting in a small clearing and taking a break from the exertions of eating many kilos of forest shoots and leaves.
The gorillas have long become accustomed to the presence of Nikon-wielding tourists. While our guide utters the occasional word in gorilla-speak (a sort of low, throaty rumble) to indicate the presence of friends, visitors are left to take selfies with cameras and iPhones while marvelling at how incredibly up-close and personal they can get to a gorilla in the wild.
Meanwhile, the objects of their attention sit around looking bored, ramble through the vegetation or engage in social activities such as playing or grooming. It’s magic, and it lasts just one hour. Visitors who need more time to connect will return the next day or the day after to track another group (after paying for their permits, of course).
Given the amount of revenue gorilla-watching generates, it’s no wonder Rwanda looks after the creatures well. For people like our guide Beck, it’s a lifelong commitment and a source of great pride. He says matter-of-factly: “I was born in the mountains, I grew up in the mountains – and I will die in the mountains.”
It wasn’t pretty, but it was pretty memorable. As we drove along a narrow country road in the shadow of the Virungas, a chain of extinct volcanoes that are home to probably the ultimate animals in- the-wild experience, we noticed a heavy military presence: stern-looking soldiers in bulletproof vests and camouflage along the route, warily eyeing our vehicle as it passed.
Then we stopped at a roadblock and were told to wait in a car park. Eventually, a soldier received instructions via walkietalkie to let us drive on towards our destination: Bisate Lodge, a brand-new, ultra-luxe property operated by specialist outfit Wilderness Safaris (in Singapore it can be booked through A2A Safaris.
The lodge, comprising a main building and six beautifully appointed rooms spread over a hillside with views of the Virunga volcanoes, is the latest sign of the country’s push into high-end tourism. It was officially opened by Rwandan President Paul Kagame at the beginning of September and now he was back – for lunch and an interview, no doubt to discuss his recent reelection after winning a third term with 99 per cent of the vote.
In the driveway, several four-wheeldrive vehicles were parked in a semi-circle, their headlights piercing the early evening gloom. In stark contrast to the prevailing mood, we noticed a blond woman smiling apologetically and waving at our car as it pulled up. ”Welcome to Bisate,” says Ingrid Baas, general manager of the lodge. Behind her, men with guns look at us with something approaching utter disdain. Ms Baas assures us that our arrival is not typical of the guest experience at Bisate and sure enough, normal service resumes after the president departs.
Depending on your luck and the weather, a hike up a volcano is likely to be physically taxing, so a stay here is the perfect complement to a gorilla- tracking experience. The design, by South African architect Nick Plewman, is based in part on the former king’s palace at Nyanza and yes – guests can expect to be treated royally.
From a distance, the rooms resemble rustic pods or giant peanut shells, with thatch roofs, woven ceilings and balconies made from bamboo. Interior finishes feature locally sourced volcanic rock and all the comforts of a luxury lodge are available, including plush furnishings with tribal motifs, a fireplace and native art. Each room offers inspiring views of Mount Bisoke (3,711 metres) with its crater lake, snow-capped Mount Karisimbi behind it and in the distance, two more volcanoes across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mountain gorillas may be the stars of the show but the park supports more than 70 mammal species in its alpine and sub-alpine habitats. ”Some people come just for the gorilla experience but there’s much more to see,” says Ms Baas. ”Rwanda has so many positives, people should plan to stay longer and do more.”
By GEOFFREY EU