In February this year, the United States Senate confirmed a new ambassador to replace Erica J. Barks-Ruggles, who had spent nearly three years in Rwanda representing her country.
While we rarely see diplomats in public, the new ambassador is unique. He is active on Twitter and always keen to share his experience in Rwanda. He is no stranger to taking selfies and sharing them publicly. His recent pictures show him riding a sports bike in the countryside and others show him drinking fermented milk (locally known as ikivuguto).
However, Peter Hendrick Vrooman, 52, is a career diplomat having worked across different parts of Africa, including Djibouti, Egypt, Somalia, Israel, Algeria, and most recently in Ethiopia.
Sunday Times’Julius Bizimungu sat down with him to understand his passion for diplomacy as well as get the sense of US investments in Rwanda, politics and the recent disagreement between the US and Rwanda on second hand clothes.
What motivated you to join the diplomatic corps?
I was a Rotary scholar in France from 1986 to 1987. Basically, the Rotary Foundation supports ambassadors of goodwill, meaning students who go from one country to another to advance certain ideals.
I took a year off from school and I went to a university in France and finished my studies. That experience gave me important things; one was the internship I got at the US Embassy in Paris as a result, and this is because I spoke French. It was an experience to learn how it will be like to be a diplomat from US Foreign Service.
Once I did that internship in Paris, I was intrigued by the work. So there is an examination you have to take, both written and an interview, which I had to take because I had an interest. I passed the exam but it took a while.
After I graduated from Harvard College in 1989 I went to Egypt, and decided to pursue a path in public service as opposed to investment banking or business. But before I could get in Foreign Service I had to wait until the job opportunity was available.
So I went to Egypt and worked at the American University in Cairo and this informed my decision to choose a career that will take me overseas to explore new cultures, new languages and be able to make a contribution to diplomacy and international cooperation.
I was offered the job at the end of 1989 and joined in 1991.
Talking about Rotary, there was a plan to transition to a Kigali-based club. Have you done that?
Yes, I just transferred my membership to Rotary Club of Kigali Virunga which is based here.
How long have you been in Rotary?
I have been a Rotarian for quite some time. I was a Rotarian in Lebanon for two years, and I was also a Rotarian in Ethiopia for more than two years, but I was also a Rotaractor in Djibouti.
I wanted to become a member here because I saw how active existing Rotary clubs are. I find this as a way of giving back to the community as well as meet the business community.
As you know, the goal of Rotary is to improve international understanding and to find beneficial solutions for communities. For me, this means I can assist in looking for opportunities to increase international understanding, and Rotary is a good way to do that.
It is my private time though, I am not there in official capacity.
What is your impression of Rwanda as a tourism destination?
It is funny that I was just at the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) this morning (Friday morning) because I am planning my next adventure that I won’t talk about right now until it happens.
But my feeling in many diplomatic assignments has been, if you are an ambassador or junior diplomat and you don’t get out to see the country, see how people live and see what they are doing, you don’t have a full sense of a country.
You have been sharing photos on social media touring different sites, what has been your experience like?
Rwanda n’igihugu cy’imisozi igihumbi [Rwanda is a country of a thousand hills], so there is a lot of different places to go. I have not gone to all the regions so far, and I hope to go to the South and West this summer.
But I have been able to see some of the places that are signal to Rwanda’s tourism plans. I’ve been to Virunga Park, I’ve climbed Bisoke and I hope to climb Karisimbi, I have also been to Akagera, and most recently I went to Congo Nile from Gisenyi to Kibuye and my next destination is from Kibuye to Rusizi.
How would you compare cultures of the different places you have been to with Rwanda?
Previously I was in Ethiopia and my daughter who happens to be a diplomat was asked by a tour guide which country she liked better between Ethiopia and India. She said: I haven’t’ been here for long to make that judgment.
Similarly, I tend to think each country is unique. You can only learn so much about the country by exploring deeply not only by going to places, but also speaking to several people.
You particularly had a plan to visit Rwanda’s cycling teams in Musanze, did you finally go there?
Yes, I have been there. I went up there for lunch in May. We had travelled to visit an agricultural project, which is a US project that is helping to raise farm production for farmers in the community.
We had lunch at the African Rising Cycling Centre, but they were doing the tour in Cameroon so I didn’t get to see them at that time. However, I want to go back there and spend some quality time with them.
Is there any personal support or your country’s support that you’d like to give to this sector?
We don’t have an advertising budget per say. What we can do is to engage or support sports diplomacy, and this means bringing speakers to Rwanda like coaches but also bike mechanics.
We generally don’t want to replicate what the private sector might be doing.
In cycling, however, there is an area where I feel we should explore more, which is a big safety concern. Apart from team Rwanda, many cyclists do not wear helmets. I wish I’d find a way to encourage safer riding.
I’m looking to explore more about this. Cycling is not an area that is covered under our development framework, it’s just a personal passion.
While addressing the press after presenting your credentials, you vowed to promote private sector investments. At the moment, how much is the US investing in Rwanda’s private sector?
I can’t give you a dollar figure but I can tell you that US is involved much in supporting the private sector. Earlier this week, I was at one of the projects called PSDAG [or Private Sector Driven Agricultural Growth Project].
This is a project we have to stimulate private sector investments in agri-business. One of the beneficiaries I visited is Masaka Creamery. They have benefitted from a grant that enabled them to scale up their business. This shows we support the private sector.
I also visited ContourGlobal that is working on Kivu watt project [to extract methane gas]. That’s the biggest single US private sector investment in Rwanda.
There have been suggestions that the recent disagreement between Rwanda and the US on The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) taxes has led to deterioration of relations between the two countries, is that so?
AGOA, like we have explained before, is a unilateral set of preferences meaning that it’s not an agreement or a treaty. It was [a programme] meant to reduce the trade barriers to [enable] entry to the United States markets to certain types of goods.
The reality is that this created opportunities for investors of different nationalities to come and produce goods in Rwanda or other countries in Africa that are part of AGOA programme and then export them to the United States as well.
However, when it was recently extended to a period of ten years, one of the conditions was that, if countries that are part of AGOA take steps that are disadvantage to US products for whatever reasons, that’s their sovereign right but it could result in the removal of preferences.
Rwanda made a choice to stimulate the textile sector, but that meant a change in status quo in a way that is not favorable to US exports. That’s why we are in the process of removing those preferences for that particular sector.
You think US-Rwanda relations were not hampered by this disagreement?
But Ambassador, how would you argue that the investments you are making in private sector can make an impact if the private sector players are not able to trade with you?
Look, this [elimination of Rwanda’s eligibility to sell textile products to the US under AGOA] doesn’t affect everyone. It is just in the textile sector. Likewise, the tariffs that are increasing are only on used cloths and shoes.
It doesn’t affect, for instance, agri-business or energy.