Rwanda is fast becoming a natural taking point whenever people gather to discuss successful economic and development models. Until recently, the East African country was listed as one of the poorest countries in the world and the 1994 ethnic clashes only helped taint the country’s image. The Weekly’s Martin Makoni spoke to the Rwandan High Commissioner to South Africa Vincent Karega to get a better understanding of how the country was able to pick itself up and turn things around. Makoni also asked Karega how the country has managed to sustain its positive growth and how other countries can achieve the same. Excerpts:
You have spent about eight years in South Africa, a much bigger economy compared to Rwanda, yet your economy continues to grow. What stands out for you when you compare the two economies?
South is a much bigger economy with an abundance of resources. If utilised, and if more people actively participate in the economy, the country can trade with everyone from Cape to Cairo. But the people of South Africa are good and they are growing too good at criticising themselves, undermining themselves and complaining about themselves as if tomorrow is the end of the world. I want to reassure South Africans that this country is beautiful. It is gorgeous. This country has go more than what it needs. However the people of this country, especially those in leadership, need to do more, differently and rapidly to correct your three problems of inequality, unemployment and poverty in a sea of wealth. Rwanda was the worst country on earth 25 years ago. People killing each other, and these were people who spoke the same language and were the same race. We are not talking of apartheid. Rwanda is very small and highly populated. It has a very hilly and difficult terrain. There is no oil, no platinum and there is no access to the sea. But today, I am very proud when I hear anyone talking about a clean and growing Rwanda.
But how was that achieved and how have you managed to keep Rwanda growing?
The will to change, the will to start as well as accounting for what you do. We said let’s cut on expenditure and focus on the real things and let’s use the fourth industrial revolution. If I can be practical, if we want to use the fourth industrial, why should we continue bringing people together for meetings when we can have a video conference? Why should we rent rooms in hotels, have lunches and spend money on transport in the era of technology. If all municipalities are connected to video conferencing it saves time and more work gets done.
Unemployment is a major problem in South Africa, quite often you see young graduates standing on street corners holding boards detailing their qualifications, it doesn’t work for everyone, what would you advise young people to do?
It doesn’t matter whether one is coming from university or not. Let’s look at it from a point of humanity. One should look into the environment and the people in order to see what opportunities are there. People may need the distribution of goods. You don’t need to produce goods to distribute them. I can’t transport goods that I did not produce from one place to another. My role is just transportation. I can share development information from market to traders. For example, as a meteorologist, one can also sell information by assessing the micro-climate and sharing that information with farmers. But one has to package himself well, prepare a good CV and present it to them. One has to be convincing, intelligent. All graduates cannot expect to be employed by government at the weather centres. It’s not possible.
But in some communities you may find that people have the infrastructure and other resources but still, there will be no growth and only a few will be actively participating in the economy, what causes that and how can it be addressed?
You can have a province with big banks, big municipality and big companies well interacting, but in between, you may have people who don’t know what it means to be a big company. There will be no platform that tells them how to be a company or maybe they underwent education where they never learnt about entrepreneurship. So, it’s all about a systematic issue; how are existing structures and resources coordinating and working together to help in empowering the disempowered through information and through coaching.
One of the major challenges faced by young people is, they may have all the technical skills to run their own businesses but they won’t be having funds, how best can this be addressed?
Banks have money but they won’t give them because they don’t know them. So, there must be a facilitator between the student and the bank. The student does not understand the bank and the bank does not understand the student. But, if a municipality, for example, makes it a priority that every Wednesday it provides all those young people with consultants that help them to do loan applications and when they get them, the municipality monitors that they are doing what they applied the money for. Government can also create a credit line in the financial sector. Most banks don’t want to take risk because they are capitalist. But I’d say there is government money, they could be used to loan it out and follow it up because government is not good at giving loans and then recovering the money. I believe if policies are accompanied by support institutions and platforms of dialogue and connectivity, then the banks, the people the municipalities and the private sector that is advanced, things will work better.
So, at what point should such conversations start between students, industry and government?
Students should not start talking to companies when they have their degrees. The dialogue should start when they are in year one at university during internships, visits and understanding what the markets want from them. What’s the point of cooking something and when it’s ready, you start wondering why people are not dishing up. You should check if people want that food.
South Africa has just experienced some very unsightly attacks on foreign nationals from other African countries. Rwanda is coming from a worse situation where about a million people perished in ethnic clashes. What sort of psych did the county’s leadership instill in the population to move the country forward as we see today?
First and foremost, it was important to assess all the losses and then ask the people if that investment or action was beneficial to their societies, to them individually and if they were proud to be defined like that or if they were ready to refine themselves and become something else. So, we had to agree consultatively on what we wanted to be. Did we want to labeled killers, lazy, opportunistic, ignorant, violent or we wanted to be defined as peaceful, harmonious, hardworking, transparent and advancing society. So we chose the good.
Naturally, we all choose the good, but it is what we do with our choices that determines our destiny. Rwanda is now the envy of the world, how have you sustained the good that you chose?
We then looked at the causes of what happened. Some of the root causes were in the leadership. People were led or pushed to do that, divided by colonial powers and misled by some independent powers. People in some cases were kept ignorant, without much education. We then came up with programmes that addressed misinformation, addressed transparency in government, patriotic issues, civic, ethic, promoting value systems that help people understand the importance of having a common vision and working for it and also turning people from passive beneficiaries into active actors. If you are a beneficiary, you will be expecting, if you are an actor you will be productive and servicing your society.
About 25 years ago when SA got its democracy, Rwanda was extremely poor, where did you get the money as a government to get things started?
Money has never been short worldwide. We also thought we had we had no money, but we learnt to utilise the available money to do the right thing, killing two birds with one stone. Even the money in your household, there are things, if you review them, that you can cut on and create extra money. Those are the things we looked at. For example, in this era of technology, why do we have to pay for people to travel from all over when we can have a tele or video conference? Why should we feed them? It’s time and resource wasting. In most cases, about half the people you bring together will leave by lunchtime. So, who are you talking to? But if you are with them on the screen, you know who has left. It’s monitorable and they can save the message and repeat it at home. So, instead of the people coming to the leaders, the leaders should go to the people. Five leaders can go mobile to all the municipalities than bringing all the municipalities to them. It’s more expensive, it’s more cumbersome and inefficient. It’s costly too. If resources are utilised, they can go a very long way. The Free State is bigger than the size of Rwanda and the population here is much lower. This province has vast resources compared to Rwanda. It’s all about utilizing what you have.