Rwanda wants to boost its economy through conferences

Rwanda has established itself as an African destination of choice for conferences, sports tournaments and other concerts. In 2019, only Cape Town hosted more events than Kigali on the mainland.

Blue, yellow and green: at night, the dome of the Kigali conference center lights up with a thousand lights in the colors of Rwanda, seeming to attract all eyes in the capital, and well beyond.

In less than ten years, this small and landlocked country has established itself as an African destination for conferences, sports tournaments and other concerts, playing on its own image of « African Singapore » to boost its economy.

Kigali was in 2019 ranked second African city in number of events hosted, behind Cape Town, according to the International Association of Conferences and Conventions (ICCA).

Badge around his neck, purse and suit, Ghislain Kanfany came to take part in a meeting of African plant producers in a large hotel in Kigali. This Senegalese agricultural expert notes the cleanliness of the capital as well as the stability of this country, led with a firm hand by President Paul Kagame since 1994.

« Rwanda is one of the most stable countries in East Africa. So (…) people feel comfortable, safe, when they come to these kinds of meetings », adds Mr. Kanfany before going through the heavy swinging doors leading to the conference room.

On the outskirts of the city, the organizers of an African cricket qualifying tournament salute the control of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the ease of access to the country.

« There is not a lot of paperwork, they have a lot of procedures but that also shows their organization, » said South African Kuben Pillay, of the International Cricket Council (ICC).

– Infrastructure –

For Trevor Ward of the Lagos-based consultancy W Hospitality Group, Rwanda ticks many boxes to develop the so-called « MICE » industry (for « Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions ») to begin with, in addition to its image. , by its tourist offer and its infrastructures.

In recent years, the country has thus inaugurated the Kigali Convention Center (KCC) in 2016 – with its dome inspired by the former royal palaces of Rwanda -, then the Gahanga cricket stadium in 2017 and finally the Kigali Arena, dedicated to cultural events. and sports in 2019. At the same time, business hotels opened their doors.

The country is also supporting its airline, RwandAir, and building a new international airport.

« The government of Rwanda has made a lot of effort, » insists Janet Karemera, deputy director of the Rwanda Convention Bureau, the public agency in charge of promoting the sector.

The official admits, however, the existence of « challenges », such as air connections – Kigali being far from being an airport hub like Addis Ababa or Johannesburg.

But the boom in the sector has a downside, according to some NGOs.

Human Rights Watch thus accused the government last September of having arrested homosexual or transgender people, street children or even prostitutes ahead of a meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM), which was finally postponed due to the pandemic.

« Rwanda’s strategy of promoting Kigali as a hub for meetings and conferences often means constant abuse against the poorest and most marginalized in the capital, » the NGO said in a statement.

Questioned by AFP, the government denounced remarks « aiming to harm a strategic sector of the economy ».

– « Domino effect » –

The RCB insists on the expected long-term « domino effect », events bringing in both revenue for the state, such as immigration fees, and for the private sector.

Trevor Ward confirms that the MICE sector brings many economic benefits.

« There are several social benefits, the most obvious is job creation, but you also have links with support industries: catering, audiovisual, cleaning, flowers », lists this expert, pointing out however the difficult evaluation of these indirect benefits.

Rwanda is a small country of 13 million inhabitants, where agriculture employs two thirds of the workers. Landlocked, it is also subject to costly imports.

This sector – like tourism in general – thus allows the country to attract precious foreign currencies necessary for the payment of imports, but has also been able to contribute to increasing its debt, which is growing rapidly, believe sources consulted by AFP.

Moreover, the revenue it generates remains low – only around 1% of GDP, according to RCB.

Between 2016 and 2019, they had grown rapidly, from $47 million (42 million euros) to 65 million, but collapsed to 5.4 million in 2020 due to the pandemic, the office adds.

Janet Karemera, however, says she is optimistic, pointing out that the 2022 calendar already displays several major events, including CHOGM, rescheduled in June.

Then, in 2025, the land of a thousand hills is to host the World Cycling Championships, a first on the African continent.

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