🇷🇼 What I remember from a year in Rwanda
TL; DR – Life, work, and everything in between. Here’s what fills my daydreams about Rwanda, its people, and its journey.
I just got back from spending a year in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.
I was there to help set up Brink in East Africa. Brink—where I work—is an innovation agency that supports organisations funding and growing ideas to solve the world’s biggest challenges: in health, education, climate, and other sectors fundamental to human flourishing.
The problems we’re trying to solve are global, and a lot of them are in sub-Saharan Africa. So our work often takes us back to the continent.
Alongside some truly amazing colleagues, my goal for the last year has been to set up a locally rooted office in Kigali. Hiring, working with local partners, and bringing an understanding of context back to Brink.
Life and work: they meld together when you travel to do something like this. So, when you ask me about Rwanda, here’s what I will remember.
Remembering a country, together in quiet harmony.
Someone once told me a theory for why humans love views so much. Our ancestors, back in hunter-gatherer societies, saw the view as key to survival. They could see their surroundings, see there were no predators about, and know where the closest source of food or water might be. We’ve inherited this, and from that comes our awe, our wonder, and our sense of calm when we see a gorgeous view open up.
While other cities block what you can see with building after building, Kigali opens up panoramic views. It’s hilly, everywhere and all of the time. Lush greens and dusty browns beneath a chalky blue and grey sky. The capital of Rwanda, its one million residents live surrounded by three mountains (Mt. Rebero, Mt. Kigali, and Mt. Jali) and endless valleys, ridges, and slopes in the city itself.
What does it do for people to be able to see so much of their city, in its splendour, so much of the time?
It creates solidarity. It brings calm. It builds pride.
And, as a result of these things, I think it creates a sense of harmony and order in things.
That harmony and order are probably the things I’ll remember most about the people of Kigali and Rwanda. And what you might notice first, if you went there for any length of time.
In 1994, Rwanda suffered a horrific genocide. Horrific in death toll (estimated at between 500-800,000). Horrific in the weapons used. The gory machete, that hacks away limbs, was the weapon of choice. Horrific in the number of rapes (estimated at between 250-500,000). Horrific in how the perpetrators knew the victims, and often came from the same village.
Never again. Having witnessed extreme disorder, the country willed itself to a future without chaos.
And so, harmony and order are core values, prized over basically anything else.
Geography and history combine to create this quiet togetherness; one that’s far and away more defined than anywhere else I have ever travelled.
Quiet togetherness means an above average comfort with silence. Walk into any resto (a bar, generally outdoors, with plastic chairs, serving cheap beer, grilled meat, plantain, and fish) and you’ll see groups of men, two drinks in front of them, sitting in silence. Totally calm and at ease. Together.
While I was in Rwanda, I went to Dar Es Salaam—the capital of neighbouring Tanzania—three times for work. For two neighbouring countries, the experience is world’s apart. One is bustling, chaotic, overwhelming. The other quiet, ordered, calm. A lot of my friends in Kigali also travelled a lot to cities in nearby Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi. “Spend a week out, get your fill of chaos, and come back home”. My barber, a Burundian, liked to say that Burundi was the cool younger sibling and Rwanda the well behaved first-born. Many Rwandese would say the same, with pride.
On that note, you’ll often hear the foreigner talk about how Rwandese people can be a little reserved. Proud to host, yes (the number of conferences and events the country hosts is staggering). Proud of a beautiful, clean country that’s on the up. Proud to be part of a continent blessed with warm hospitality. But not dying to be your best friend. Detached.
And so the foreigner community has closed in on itself; a country within a country. A tribe. A cross between an aristocracy and university campus.
Remembering a tech boom that’s changing lives.
Whatever your job, if you live in Rwanda one of the first things you’ll notice is the investment in tech.
The tech boom in Rwanda, much hyped across Africa, is real. It shouts loud in an otherwise quiet land. There’s pages of policy documents, covering everything from AI to smart cities to cyber-security. Crucially, these papers come backed with money and action.
While I was in Rwanda, the World Bank pledged $200m of funding towards “digital acceleration”. The French government also pledged $100m, a big chunk of which is towards tech. Infrastructure is springing up everywhere. There’s 95% 4G coverage nationally. Over 3 years (2014-16), internet speed went 10x (from ~1 to ~10mbps). Mobile money is widespread. I accessed government services – visas, COVID tests, business registration, tax – on a government portal (Irembo) as good as gov.uk or any others in Europe. There are even drones carrying medical supplies.
Kigali is a city of tech accelerators and innovation hubs. A friend of mine curated the “official” list of entrepreneur support organisations, and he put the number at 65. The largest startup co-working space in Kigali—Norrsken East Africa—just finished being built while I was there. It’s funded by a Swedish Foundation and replaced the previous biggest, Westerwelle Startup Haus, funded by the German government.
There are some amazing startups I’ve worked with, building things like solar kits and e-commerce platforms for women. They would be the first to tell you that the startup scene is in its infancy. Rwanda remains a small country, with a small talent pool and small local market. Start-ups in Rwanda received $17m of equity investment in 2021; in neighbouring Kenya it was $571m.
Foreign capital, infrastructure projects and a clear-eyed government – not startups – have set Rwanda on this path to tech-led growth. And no-one embodies this cocktail better than the Rwandan Information Systems Agency (RISA) – the government body responsible for implementing public sector tech projects. The government’s Chief Innovation Officer, and Chief Information Officer, live here. They do everything from installing broadband cables, to managing national cyber security, to building digital literacy programmes. The most talented and driven people I met in Rwanda work here. And what they do is as impressive as anything I’ve seen from a government, Global North or Global South.
While in Rwanda, I was working with a startup that used sweet potato flour to bake bread and biscuits. When the war in Ukraine raised the price and lowered the production of wheat, the founder got a call from the government, asking what they could do to help his startup grow, helping bring greater food security to his country. More systematic public-private partnerships abound: putting tablets in schools for teachers and giving digital wallets to farmers. Keeping the country pulling in the same direction.
Remembering a different way to think about time and talking.
The birds sing at 7am. Children (and there’s so many of them!) run home from school at 1pm. It drizzles at 3pm. Whatever the time of year, it gets dark at 6pm. There are rhythms, baked in nature and unchanging.
Within these eternal rhythms, the rest of life will happen when it happens. If you like running to a tight schedule, then Rwanda isn’t the place for you. Time is synchronous, not sequential. Energy, relationships and events guide what happens next, not the clock or a pre-set plan.
A lot of life happens on WhatsApp. WhatsApp is how I spoke with high-ranking government officials, with RwandAir (the national airline), with my barber, with my favourite take-away, with our accountants. Everyone is on WhatsApp; doing business, bantering, asking, sharing, planning. One thing I learnt: catch people while they’re online. They’ll respond there and then, or not at all.
If WhatsApp is the ubiquitous tool for how people talk, the motorbike taxi (or moto) is how they travel. Jumping on the back of a moto gets you anywhere in Kigali in 20 minutes. Josh and Alp—the Founders of Ampersand, a startup building electric motorbike taxis—once told me that motos cover enough distance in Kigali to get to the sun and back, twice, every day. Price is negotiated upon hailing one, which never takes more than 5 minutes and is never more than $1.50 (even considering a foreigner markup).
WhatsApp and the moto taxi are part of a culture that loves to talk things through. Nothing can’t be solved in person, ideally one-to-one. Don’t email, complete a form, and wait for a response. WhatsApp, call, or hop on a moto and meet.
That’s one reason that, if you go to any establishment in Kigali—a restaurant, a hotel, a bar, a shopping centre, a library—you’ll see reams of staff. Security guards, service staff, management, cleaning staff. Where places in other countries might try to optimise for efficiency, Rwanda optimises for human connection. For talking things through, negotiating, exchanging views.
Hiring is also a social obligation for a business operating in Rwanda. If your business has the good fortune to make money, your first act must be to give your fellow citizens a job. High employment is a force for the harmony and order everyone values, and hiring embodies that prized virtue of solidarity. It’s common to be eating in a restaurant with more staff than customers.
Which certainly isn’t true back in London.
I’ll miss the solidarity, even if my part in it was only temporary. I’ll miss the caressing heat and calm rhythms, a backdrop to tech optimism and some of the most amazing people I know. I’ll miss calling Kigali my home.
🎬 Thanks to , JG, Cassandra Ellis, Caryn Tan and Jason Nguyen for looking at drafts of this.
🤔 Got thoughts? Don’t keep them to yourself. Email me on firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s figure this out together.
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Banner depicts the mist and forests of Western Rwanda. A painting by Muntu, a Rwandan artist and close friend.