One of the most visible differences between the developing and developed worlds is the abundance of labor and labor-intensive processes in the developing world. Nearly every day in Rwanda I observe someone doing a job that was mechanized or automated at least one or two decades ago in most parts of the developed world. The abundance of cheap labor and the unreliability of electricity here combine to create employment in tasks that are menial and sometimes downright comical. I suppose the bottom line is that when you can’t rely on machines, you rely on people. Here are some examples:
- All buses around Kigali are staffed by a driver and a conductor who collects the bus fares from passengers. The conductor also functions as the bus route display screen by shouting the bus destination at every stop.
- Every morning Kigali’s streets are full of women employed by the city to sweep the sidewalks and the streets.
- Instead of parking meters, the system of paying for parking is much more entertaining: once you have finished your business and you turn your car on, someone in a yellow vest will chase after you flourishing a ticket whose price correlates to how long you were parked. Some people believe it’s optional to stop backing up and pay.
- Cell phone airtime is prepaid here and not on a monthly plan. To reload airtime, you physically purchase a scratch card from one of the brightly-vested airtime sellers found at nearly every corner of the city. If you request, the sellers will even scratch off the gray covering to reveal the code for you.
- I believe I have seen a lawnmower once or twice, but I still want to share this example because I’m sure it wasn’t the only time this happens: I once watched a man cutting a sizable plot of grass with a pair of office scissors.
- Instead of alarm systems (or sometimes in addition to), nearly every big office and well-to-do home employs a security guard to keep watch (read: sleep) at night. Guards for homes are rarely armed, while guards for offices are from official security companies and have a night stick or gun with them.
- And now for a hybrid situation: At the airport there is an automated ticket machine where you press a button at the entrance to take a ticket. Since the machine is too far from most cars, there is often a person there to press the button for the driver and hand over the ticket. I find this hysterical for some reason.
Now I must say that at times I appreciate and enjoy the benefits provided by the human over the machine. Instead of fumbling with a MetroCard on the bus and getting flustered if I don’t have enough credit, here I can wait for the conductor to ask me to pay and sometimes I even negotiate a cheaper fare if I’m going only a few stops. Then again, if I’m transferring to another bus line I don’t get the discount that my MetroCard would accord me.
It will be interesting to see if and how fast these jobs become phased out to machines and virtual systems as Rwanda progresses towards its goal of becoming a middle income country by 2020.