Archive for the ‘Economic development’ Category

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.

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After a month+ hiatus, I’m back in Kigali – and with lots of updates. I have a new job and a new house, and the city has several updates itself. It’s remarkable how many visible changes can take place in one city in a short six weeks. It reminds me that there are developments happening every day and week that I have become subconsciously acclimated to on a daily basis. Here’s a short rundown of the changes and developments I noticed upon my return:

– Kigali Bus Services has a new fleet of buses capable of triple the capacity of their former buses. They even have digital screens on the outside to theoretically project the bus line (for now they only display random flashes of Arabic or Chinese lettering).

– At least five major intersections have brand new electronic crosswalk and traffic light systems that not only count down the amount of time remaining for pedestrians to cross but also the amount of time until the red or green light changes for cars. New York doesn’t even have that. Pretty revolutionary!

– A major shopping plaza downtown called the Rubangura House now has a metal detector at its entrance. (Not sure if this development reflects positively but it is noteworthy.)

– There are three new storefronts in my neighborhood of Nyamirambo, one down a dirt side street made of fancy-looking glass.

– A major construction site in the center of downtown Kigali has added two more stories and is well on its way to becoming a shopping plaza.


– Another major construction site downtown that is slotted to become an insurance building is almost finished (the second highest building in the header picture of my blog, taken about 3 months ago). It now boasts a new triangle/spire on its top that definitely changes Kigali’s skyline.

Updated and almost ready for business

– A fence around a construction site in Nyamirambo that was made of corrugated metal and bottle caps (I believe they were covering nails but I’m not sure) is now made of brick. And the construction site transformed from a skeleton (which was ambiguously in the process of either being built or torn down) into a near finished plaza-looking building with shiny reflective tiles and windows.

– Construction broke ground for Kigali City Hall, an ambitious project downtown that had only been an empty lot 6 weeks ago. Now it has two stories and the structure isn’t too far off from the projected plan posted on the wall.

– A huge construction site, slotted to become the New Century Hotel under Marriott management, has made visible progress by adding several stories and also looks closer to the projected plan posted on the wall.

– A construction site on one of the main arteries leading to downtown is now about 90% finished, with new white tiling and reflective blue windows. It turned into an architecturally interesting building with a little wave extending from the roof.

Coming back to a place after a month and a half away certainly makes the contrast of past and present more noticeable and palpable – especially a place undergoing such rapid development in its infrastructure and business environment. As for my own developments, namely what my life in Rwanda Part II entails, stay tuned for next time!

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A few months ago, I rode a bicycle taxi for seven kilometers in a rural area of western Rwanda. While I had a blast relaxing on the comfortable cushioned backseat of the bike, the driver was visibly exhausted from pulling me over the meandering dirt road’s rocky hills. I even had to get off at a few points so that he could push the bike up the steepest parts. At the end of the 30-minute ride, he asked me to pay him 200 Rwf, or 33 cents. I was shocked by his request for such meager compensation, which my Rwandan friends told me was the going rate for that distance.

After thinking about it, I realized that 33 cents couldn’t possibly allow him to replenish the calories he exerted in the 30-minute trek, unless perhaps he bought 33 cents worth of pure cooking oil and drank that. 33 cents could buy 2 chapati or maybe 4 small doughnut holes in some parts of the country. However, judging by the rivers of sweat dripping down the driver’s face and body, I estimate that would replace about only half of his calories exerted during the ride.

That encounter got me thinking about all of the underpaid physical labor that happens across the world. I’m no labor wage or nutrition expert, but the clichéd statistic of more than one billion people living on less than one dollar per day has some truth to it. The type of person earning $1 per day is probably not working in an office or using his critical reasoning skills (unless he’s an unpaid intern); he’s using his hands and body to manufacture, harvest, or carry things. It’s doubtful that a salary of $1 a day can buy enough food to replace his calories lost, let alone feed the (most likely numerous) mouths of his hungry growing children at home.

The concept of a caloric replacement standard intrigues me as a minimum wage idea. What if all compensation for physical labor was based on how much it would locally cost to replace the calories exerted? Or even better – what if compensation for physical labor was based on how much it would locally cost to replace the calories exerted and provide enough nutrients to help maintain a healthy body? It sounds obvious and a bit idealistic but if applied in practice or as a calculated law for minimum wage standards in developing countries, it could be a potentially powerful instrument for reducing malnutrition and overexertion-related diseases and maintaining healthier populations.

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After a short hiatus, I’m back in blog action. I spent the past few weeks on vacation with my mother and sister, who were visiting Rwanda – and Africa – for the first time. It was wonderful to see them, show them around Kigali, adventure around the countryside, and watch my sister, Julia, pick up Kinyarwanda like a pro. Some of the trip’s highlights include seeing Rwanda’s famous mountain gorillas, walking on a canopy bridge high above Nyungwe Forest, and introducing my family to the delicious grilled tilapia of Nyamirambo. Once my internet hopefully improves, I’ll dedicate a full post to the trip and put up some pictures. But first here, I want to write about an interesting phenomenon that I witnessed all around rural Rwanda.

It’s impossible to drive on a dusty road in rural Rwanda without causing a commotion. For people who live along the rural back roads, seeing cars is a fairly exciting event, especially when the cars have muzungus inside. People of all ages wave and children run after the cars, as well as ask for money, food, or other things. Throughout our trip around the countryside, one consistent request that surprised me was for “chupa,” empty water bottles. I would estimate that every third child we passed yelled excitedly at us “Chupa!” or  “Agachupa!” (small empty water bottle). At first I thought they wanted a Chupa Chup, but our driver dispelled that naive idea.

Empty water bottles are in such high demand by children in rural areas for a few reasons. First, they can fill them with water to take to school. They can also sell them to a local store for 20 francs (3 cents), so that the storeowner can fill them with oil, paraffin, or juice and resell them.

Talk about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure. Seeing children so excited about receiving what people driving by toss away as unwanted garbage reminded me of a blog post I read a few months ago by a blogger who works in the humanitarian aid industry. The anonymous blogger coined the term SWEDOW, or “stuff we don’t want” to describe his/her criticism of well intentioned but ill conceived and ultimately useless, self-serving, and occasionally harmful in-kind donations to Africa from developed countries. Some examples include used shoes and clothing, pillowcases, anti-ageing skin cream, and even breast milk.

This case of the empty water bottle seems to me like an extreme example of SWEDOW but with actual positive effects on the recipients. Granted, the plastic bottles may ultimately end up polluting the environment at a later date once they are discarded for good. But in the intermediate phase, they help children eke out a tiny livelihood or hydrate themselves while at school. And the people who discard these objects have essentially no use for them. In a country where plastic recycling has not yet become widespread or easily accessible, this seems like a decent small and localized way to recycle or reuse.

To be poetic about it, you could say this phenomenon is the intersection between waste management, supporting small-scale livelihoods, and constructive aid. But rural Rwanda isn’t going to be developed through a One Chupa Per Child policy, and I’m not advocating donating plastic bottles from abroad to rural Africa. It’s just some interesting drink for thought.

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As I’ve mentioned before, Rwanda is quite a forward-thinking country – mainly thanks to the propulsion of its visionary leader. In 2009, the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Kigali City leadership unveiled the Kigali Conceptual Master Plan, “the framework on which the development of Kigali City shall be based for the next 30-50 years.” It is most definitely a long range and ambitious plan, envisioning the future of Kigali as some kind of a cross between Miami, Singapore, and Geneva. The plan is focused around transforming the CBD, Central Business District, of Kigali into a world-class hub of investment, attractions, beauty, and wealth.

Here’s the futuristic video conceptualization – a mind-blowing experience:

There’s also a shorter version here, set to epic music:

I also came across a segment that CNN recently ran on Kigali as one of its Future Cities:

I have to commend the planners on quite a masterpiece. Needless to say, it’s an extremely, if not absurdly, ambitious vision. A question that comes to mind is – what about the rest of Rwanda?

Something encouraging is that here on the ground in Kigali I can actually point out several construction sites that follow the plan on the video, in particular the Kigali City Tower and roads being paved below the main roundabout. It’s an audacious plan for sure, but given the incredible progress Rwanda has made in the past fifteen years I don’t think it’s impossible fifty years down the road.

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