14 June 2017

EIF Board Meeting in Rwanda – Learning about Umuganda

by Mr Antti Piispanen / in

 EIF Board meetings are held once a year in a Least Developed Country. These meetings are excellent opportunities for EIF Board Members to see and understand how the programme works on the ground. In December 2016, we were fortunate enough to hold the meeting in Rwanda.


I travelled to Kigali from Helsinki, the wintry capital of Finland. It was my first trip to the country, and I was not sure what to expect. My first surprise was already on the plane, when the airline crew announced that plastic bags were banned in Rwanda. The country seems to be serious about looking after the environment. My first impression was confirmed during my stay in Rwanda. Kigali is one of the cleanest cities on the planet. I also learned about the Rwandan word Umuganda, which can be roughly translated as ‘coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome’. Umuganda also means that every last Saturday of each month, people come together as a community to clean their neighborhoods and do other community chores.


This spirit of coming together in common purpose is probably the secret ingredient behind the remarkable transformation that has happened in Rwanda since the devastating Genocide in 1994. The country has maintained a growing economy and improving living standards for over 20 years to date. The change is incredible and visible. Looking at the modern buildings and beautiful surroundings of the country of 1,000 hills, it is hard to imagine that Rwanda started basically from scratch just a couple of decades ago. President Paul Kagame puts it well in an interview about Umuganda for the New Times: “Our country was once known for its tragic history. Today, Rwanda is proud to be known for its transformation”.


The EIF Board Meeting started off with a courtesy call to the Minister of Trade, Industry and East African Community Affairs (MINEACOM), H.E. Mr François Kanimba. We learned that trade is playing an important role in contributing to the country's development. Cross-border trade is identified as a significant priority in the national development plan. Rwanda is one of the countries where the EIF has worked as it should. The Government is taking ownership and leadership of its trade agenda while using the EIF and its tools strategically to coordinate and leverage further Aid for Trade resources to meet the country's development goals.


The actual EIF Board meeting was held at the brand‑new Kigali Conference Centre. The building was inaugurated in 2016, in time to host the 27th African Union Summit in July. Our EIF Board meeting was ably chaired by Ambassador Eloi Laourou from Benin. The EIF Board discussed, among other issues, the Medium-term Strategic Plan of the EIF, the Compendium for EIF Phase Two and ensuring value for money in the EIF's work. There was recognition that 2017 is a critical year to deliver and demonstrate results. Showcasing the EIF's added value, which is very apparent in countries like Rwanda, is vital to attract further resources to fully implement the second phase of the EIF that was launched in 2016.


Following the EIF Board meeting, a workshop that examined cross-border trade was organized jointly by the MINEACOM and the EIF. There were presentations by international, regional and local partners. It was good to see the key partners engaging and discussing ways to implement the trade agenda together. What particularly struck me were the comments made by Minister Kanimba on informal cross‑border trade. He underlined that informal trade should not be seen as illegal, assomething that we should try to limit. Instead, we have to recognize the significant value that informal traders bring to the economy and the livelihoods of people. His comments go to the heart of what inclusive trade is about. We need to find ways to facilitate cross-border trade, particularly for the less sophisticated small traders. This is also about promoting gender equality, as between 70-80% of cross‑border traders in Rwanda are women, and 90% of these women rely on cross-border trade as their sole source of income.


The highlight of the week was a field visit to the cross‑border marketplace between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in Karongi on the shore of Lake Kivu, one of Rwanda's largest lakes covering a large stretch of the border between the two countries. We arrived in Karongi just in time to witness a bustling marketplace with live animals, fish, fruits, vegetables and other agricultural produce on offer. Informal traders from the DRC, arriving in their traditional open-top fishing boats, were busy negotiating prices with their Rwandan counterparts. The boats were gradually filling up with livestock and agricultural produce. The DRC is Rwanda's largest informal export destination, accounting for 83% of informal cross-border exports, according to a survey by the National Bank of Rwanda. Marketplaces, such as the one in Karongi, have a significant impact on the livelihoods of people on both sides of the border.


Karongi market has been in existence for over 20 years. It has grown into one of the busiest informal crossing points in Rwanda. Lying within a mapped touristic park and offering spectacular panoramic views over the lake, trade volumes are set to increase with tourism arrivals. However, there has been very little development of the marketplace, and traders in Karongi face several hard biting constraints. Poor market infrastructure and inadequate storage facilities add to costs, increase wastage and push up prices. This is compounded by a poor road network, which hinders agricultural producers' access to the market. The producers' capacity to scale up is also constrained by a lack of information on demand and prices. These are some of the challenges that the EIF Tier 2 project "Inclusive Cross-Border Trade Capacity Development" is aiming to address. The project's purpose is to comprehensively improve the cross‑border business environment by addressing institutional mechanisms, trade‑related capacities and strategic trade support infrastructure. The Rwandan National Cross-Border Strategy identifies eight border marketplaces for development. The EIF is supporting two of those in Karongi and Burera. Other development partners, such as TradeMark East Africa and the World Bank, are providing support to the other border marketplaces.


Construction work of the Karongi upgraded marketplace was well on its way. We donned our hard hats and yellow security vests and headed to inspect the construction site. The improvement to the current marketplace will be significant, with modern storage facilities and other infrastructure. This will offer protection from rain and provide cold room storage facilities. After visiting the construction site, we were met by a group of women entrepreneurs who proudly showcased their products. The EIF project, which invests in gender‑sensitive infrastructure, is set to benefit them by providing a safe trading space to conduct their business. Our tour was capped off by a townhall‑type meeting with local residents, who were eager to learn about the EIF project and the opportunities that the upgraded cross‑border marketplace will bring to them. The enthusiasm of the people reminded us that physical infrastructure is only one part of the project. Creating an enabling business environment and building the skills of local entrepreneurs is just as, if not more, important to create a thriving marketplace.


After enjoying the warmth of the Rwandan sun and its people, it was time to head back to the airport and the winter of Finland. I realized that there was a surprising similarity between our two countries. In Finland, whenever a family, community, sports club or other social grouping needs to have something done, we will organize something that is called Talkoot. People will come together to work on a common project and in return only expect for the host to provide some refreshments. The similarities to Umuganda are quite striking. At the end of the day, that is also what the EIF is about: coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome. 

Any views and opinions expressed on Trade for Development News are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect those of EIF.