Sign of the times; cement, mobile phones top imports

We are fast approaching April 7 and Rwandans are occupied with various activities to commemorate twenty years after the Genocide against the Tutsi.
Joseph Rwagatare
Joseph Rwagatare

We are fast approaching April 7 and Rwandans are occupied with various activities to commemorate twenty years after the Genocide against the Tutsi.

They remember the horror and immense loss of twenty years ago. Despite the passage of time, the sorrow and pain are still fresh. It is still important to grieve and keep the memory of those who perished.

But in this year’s activities, as indeed in past ones, there is more to the commemoration than just grieving and remembrance.

All the activities are a bold statement of several things: the rejection to be held captive by the past, refusal to be the pitiful victim, the ability to reclaim the right to move and shape events and the determination to move beyond tragedy to prosperity.

Evidence of all this abounds – in the undying flame of hope that is making its journey across the country, public lectures and symposia, various commemorative activities across the globe, and so on. But above all, the evidence is in the growing economy of the country and the rising standards of living of Rwandans.

That Rwanda’s economy has been growing at a fast rate is widely recognized. Every year reports come out showing the country’s improvement – in growth, competitiveness, doing business, best investment destination and so on.

Even detractors admit this country’s economic performance, albeit grudgingly.

They would rather it was a lie, of course. And to make the unpalatable fact more acceptable, they invent explanations to make it appear unpleasant. The growth is either unsustainable or it is achieved at the expense of people’s rights.

Or it is skewed and only enjoyed by a small urban elite while the rural majority wallow in abject poverty, and other examples of wishful thinking.

Facts on the ground tell a different story. Economic growth is spread across the country and different sectors. The latest such facts are contained in a report by the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda (NISR) which shows a shift in the nature and value of exports.

Now, you may dispute figures from district mayors, agricultural and trade officers and other government functionaries and even dismiss them as having been cooked, but not those from NISR.

They are usually credible and reliable.

In its 2013 report on external trade, NISR shows that in the last quarter of 2013,  Rwanda earned more from milk exports than from coffee and minerals. If you asked any student in this country what our leading export is, they are likely to mention coffee, and tea in second place.

That, of course was true when the country’s production and trade were undiversified.

No one would ever think of milk, especially in a country where cattle and their products were all but outlawed by past governments eager to distance themselves from a supposedly feudal past (so they thought in their short-sightedness).

Minerals would even be further from anyone’s lips. Rwanda is supposed to be natural resources-poor, isn’t it? At least that is what we have been taught to believe.

That has now changed. Milk and its products are number one, minerals are second and coffee came in third place.

This shift is significant. It means that there has been a movement away from depending on one commodity whose prices on the world market fluctuate so much as to make earnings from it unpredictable.

Secondly, the beneficiaries of this change are the ordinary small-scale farmers across the country, many of them recipients of cattle from the social support Girinka programme.

Thirdly, it is evidence of a dairy products porogramme that includes setting up milk cooling and collection centres in different parts of Rwanda.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, especially in the West, Rwanda does have significant mineral deposits – perhaps not on the extravagant scale we see in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The report also shows a shift in imports and their source. Most imports now come from China, followed by Uganda and India. This indicates a diversification in trading partners.

There is growing trade with emerging economies and those in the region which means a reduction in dependence to traditional, former colonial trading partners.

One of the most significant revelations of the NISR report is the nature of imports. The most imports are cement and mobile phones.

The huge cement imports are necessitated by a booming construction industry. The demand for residential and commercial housing has been growing.

This means that there is money to spend and to be earned in this area, and that is indicative of a growing economy.

Mobile phones are mainly imported from China. These are not the high end, smart phones for the elite and tech savvy, but the inexpensive variety for ordinary people.

The mobile phone has become an indispensable tool of modern communication. But it has also increasingly become a means of business and financial transactions.

The three main mobile phone operators in Rwanda offer mobile money and banking services that make ownership of the device almost mandatory.

These are the facts and figures from the NISR report and figures don’t lie. The determination to put the past behind us and forge a new future is real and there is proof. That is what gives this year’s commemoration added importance.

 

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