Misty morning in Kigali

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Africa. So amazing that Toto wrote a corny ditty about it. ‘I hear the drums echoing tonight, etc.’ So vast that IBM devoted an entire suite of Think Friday to it. It’s so ancient that we’re all supposed to have started in the Olduvai Gorge. It’s given us Jomo Kenyatta, Nelson Mandela, David Rudisha, every top middle distance runner of the last twenty years, George Weah and a lot more besides. Musically it (probably) gave us the Blues and a lot of World Music to boot. And the really cool thing is that now I’m there (i.e. here), working on a volunteering project based in Kigali, Rwanda for the next four weeks.

The ‘getting here’ was a bit of a nightmare. Late take off from Dublin meant I missed my connection in Istanbul and had to overnight there. I did see a bit of the heaving, packed city the next morning, which was interesting, but I guess in my head I was already flying to the heart of Africa. And so at thirty minutes after midnight on July 26th I touched down at Kigali airport. Ironically not three weeks earlier I had – as part of my rapid orientation – been reading an account of the 1994 war when the UN forces dug in at one end of that airport were being shelled on a regular basis. Happily now it’s a lot quieter, and despite being the very last person to get through the combined visa/passport station my local contacts were waiting to ferry me to my home from home for the next four weeks. A very welcome bed was ready for me and I dived into it around 2am.

It seems to get bright around 6.30 AM and because it’s virtually on the equator it gets 12 hours day and night, all year round. I think that longer term I’d find that a bit odd and one-dimensional, but it is what it is. But I arose Sunday, looked out at the hawks circling thought the foggy morning air and gazed across the valley at some of the hills of Kigali. A bit different from my usual ‘let the dog out’ start to the day!

Day one was all about orientation, meeting the other members of the IBM team, meeting the head of IBM East Africa and the local team from IBM’s partner organisation for this exercise, called Digital Opportunity Trust. It’s a bit strange meeting IBM colleagues that you only have spoken to on calls previously, but happily first impressions are that they are all friendly, flexible and committed to doing a good job. They also seem to be prepared to share the odd beer or two, which is encouraging. Sure enough after a brief twilight, darkness fell promptly at 6.30pm, so I’d spent the entire Sunday working in the hotel.

So on to Monday 27th and gradually getting our collective feet on the ground, we paid a courtesy call on the ministers for ‘Youth and ICT’ and for ‘Gender and empowerment’ (dress formal). This was, quite frankly, pretty amazing. It was hugely impressive what a clear ‘vision’ (a word I normally distrust greatly) they have of where they want to take the country and where they currently are on that ‘roadmap to 2020’ which began in 2000. Both the ministers ‘sang from the same hymn book’ and all of the visiting team found what they had to say to be really coherent, convincing and powerful. So that was a great start to the day, and we were all quite invigorated by what we had heard. We had a brief lunch in the fabled Hotel Rwanda, (these days’ labelled Hotel des Milles Collines – note right side of pic) which was another rather powerful experience.

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Next up we separated into our three respective project teams and my ‘new friends’ from US, India and Japan and I headed for the Imbuto foundation HQ. Imbuto is a kinyrwanda (local language) word meaning ‘seed’ and its philosophy is to plant seeds of female empowerment and nurture them to maturity. It’s a well-established organisation and we were very warmly welcomed by a large group of very well informed people. Once again we had what appeared to be a very constructive and informed discussion and we managed to broadly come up with a scope we could work on (given that female empowerment is not exactly a small topic). However I hope we established our bona fides by explaining our combined skills and by asking some reasonably intelligent questions. We’re going to have to go through a fairly rapid fact finding exercise this week and then probably start brainstorming how to utilise that new-found information. We exited Imbuto around 4pm and the plan is to really engage closely with them for the next few days. We’re especially excited by one existing project they have which is centred on providing women with the tools and a greenhouse to grow tomatoes and thereby create income, with a co-operative being created in each commune around this. It’s a model we might be able to adapt to other ends so we (project team) are hoping to be able to do a field trip outside Kigali to see this in action and meet one or two of the women engaged in the project.

So the net of all of these very interesting meetings is that one does get the impression that Rwanda is really serious about positioning itself as a model economy. They have a stated aim to become a knowledge based economy, and maybe their relatively small size is actually an aid to achieving this. It is – apparently – the most densely populated country in Africa (with about 12m people) but I think the short distances and the fact that Kigali is smack in the middle of the country probably helps with executing these initiatives. Time will tell. Currently it seems tourism, minerals and exported agricultural products are the chief contributors to the economy. I’m not sure what those minerals are and my prior research did not indicate this as a major earner, but given the wealth in countries like Congo/DRC and Zambia (say) I guess it should not be a surprise.

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We flirted with economics today, as the stated aim is to get Rwanda’s GDP per head from $160 to $2,400 per head between 2000 and 2020. And the years 2000 to now have apparently been about ‘sowing the seeds’ so they really want to kick this into high gear between now and 2000. Hopefully the stuff we’re working on can play a part in that. And beyond that, what’s new? Well through the various trips to ministries and foundations we did today I can confirm that Kigali is indeed hilly. I have seen virtually no cyclists so far, though    moto-taxis are everywhere. These are basically motorbikes where you pay the driver to get you from point A to point B and you sit behind him and hang on and pray quietly. I do need to buy a proper map so satisfy my ‘where am I’ gene which history has shown can manifest itself in these situations – Google maps is no substitute I’m afraid, I need the version you can fold, traditionalist that I am. So night three in Kigali and we’re up and running, and I’m looking forward to telling the rest of this story as it evolves. #ibmcsc rwanda

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