So, there are certain stories that we have heard and then internalized about our country. We are poor. We are small. And we are resource poor. To be honest, I believed those three ‘facts’ to be true. That was what I read in international journals; that was the story I watched on the news. And I believed that to be my own lived experience. So, when I saw that narrative (i.e. poor, small and resource-poor’) being pushed, I didn’t see any reason to dispute it. READ ALSO: Rwanda gets first gold refinery But maybe I should’ve. Maybe I should’ve paid more attention when President Kagame asked a pertinent question. He asked, and I paraphrase here, ‘did the Great Lakes Mineral Belt touch every country in the region except Rwanda’? The Kigezi region of southern Uganda is rich in iron ore and other minerals, Burundi is blessed with nickel and rare earth, western Tanzania is rich in all sorts of minerals and eastern DRC is rich in coltan and all sorts of other minerals. So, how can it be that every single country around us is rich in mining potential, except Rwanda? That simply wouldn’t make any sense at all. To get a better sense of the natural resources that Rwandans had under their feet, I visited the Rwanda Mines, Petroleum and Gas Board in their Nyarugenge office just opposite CHUK hospital and asked some basic questions. What minerals Rwanda had, where they were found, whether they were of an export quantity and whether we did any kind of refinement or any other type of value addition. The answers I received were astounding. I discovered that not only was Rwanda not resource-poor but I found out that we were actually resource rich. I was informed that after decades of expensive exploration (that included the use of airplanes), the country was found to enjoy huge deposits of cassiterite, coltan, wolfram, gold, and gemstones throughout our borders. In fact, the exploration turned up new minerals; lithium (an essential component of electric car batteries) and rare earth elements. Furthermore, I was surprised to learn that over the last decades or so, we’d been barely scratching the surface of our potential. With rudimentary tools and methods, short mining shafts that barely went a few tens of meters into the ground (to give this context, the deepest gold mine in South Africa, the Mponneng gold mine, goes 3.0 kilometers towards the center of the earth), little refining capacity, lack of adequate banking support to the mineral sector and exploitation by greedy international middlemen it’s no wonder it seemed like the Rwandan mining sector was born DOA (Dead On Arrival). I learnt, for example, that due to our new gold refining capacity, we started tapping into silver as well (imagine my shock when I learnt that silver was a ‘waste product’ of gold refining). Imagine just how much unrefined gold we’ve exported over the years? How much silver has slipped through our fingers because of our inability to refine our own gold? Probably millions of dollars’ worth. With my newfound understanding of the facts on the ground, I no longer found it astounding to read that Rwanda earned over $700 million last year through its mineral exports. In fact, I left the Minerals Board frustrated by the fact that we’d ‘only’ earned that amount. I wasn’t frustrated by the hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of minerals we exported, I was frustrated that it wasn’t more. I was left wondering how much money could have been earned if we were able to refine our lithium? How much we could’ve made if we moved away from pick axes and shovels and started using specialized tools? How many more well-paying jobs could have been created if the sector lived up to its full potential? Frustration transformed to hope when I learnt about some of the strategic moves that the mining sector, as well as the Government, was making. Hope because I’d seen what we’d been able to accomplish as a country when we decided to create value in our tourism sector. I am old enough to remember when the idea of Rwanda being a tourism hotspot seemed like a pipedream. It’s my belief that I will be alive long enough to see a time when mining becomes as synonymous with Rwanda as our mountain gorillas. The writer is a socio-economic commentator.