It is around 10.00am on a weekday in the central business area of Huye town and there is a beehive of activity.
Several people are moving about and the many shops lining both sides of the street are open, with customers walking in and out while further down the street, men offloading cement from a cargo transport truck.
By all indications, it is a busy town and not much less would be expected of a town that is one of the six secondary cities that have been established by government, as a way to rationalize development.
Formerly called Astrida during the colonial times, Huye was once the capital of Rwanda and it is still referred to as the education capital, owing to its being the birthplace of the former National University of Rwanda, which is now part of the University of Rwanda.
Ironically, it was the creation of the University of Rwanda in 2013 – which came out of the merger of seven public institutions of higher learning – that would leave the town dead, after many departments were transferred to Kigali campuses.
“The town was almost dysfunctional it was no longer the lively town we had known for decades, recalls Eric Murwanashyaka, who owns two restaurants in Huye town.
“The houses were rundown and there was no incentive to renovate because business was slow…you could hardly find a big shop or wholesaling store. When you wanted to buy in large quantities, you had to go to Muhanga town,” said Murwanashyaka.
New lease of life
However, the town is now coming to life, after the University of Rwanda, last year decided to return several departments of the university, which saw thousands of students go back to Huye, thereby breathing a new life into the old town.
Nearly 2,000 students moved to Huye through the new move and according to university authorities, the Huye campus now has a total of 7,496 students.
They add to the population of Huye town, estimated between 70,000 and 90,000, according to the district authorities.
Property owners say the relocation was important.
“Before the students came, many houses were empty,” says Innocent Mbarushimana, who manages a 25-room hostel facility in Tumba sector.
“Now every room is occupied.”
With the influx, campus hostels (with the capacity of accommodating 3,700 people and some under rehabilitation) could not host all the students.
Many sought houses off the campus. Then, the increased demand for houses sparked a rise in rent prices.
Augustin Nyirishema, a civil engineering student at IPRC Huye, has been living in Huye since 2016.
Nyirishema says that when the students came, his landlord in the Medina neighbourhood near the University of Rwanda Huye Campus, increased rent by over Rwf5,000, which he said is a lot for a student.
“It was not easy for me and my roommate,” he says.
“We had to find another person so that we could afford Rwf25,000,” monthly rent.
But Mbarushimana, the manager of the hostel, says the rise in prices was meaningful, saying that they have incurred a lot of losses in the previous years had have accumulated a lot of arrears in different aspects.
“Today, we can pay taxes, water and electricity bills, which was hard before,” he says.
Businesses in Huye collapsed for two reasons;
The merger in 2013 of former National University of Rwanda and seven education institutions that saw the town almost deserted;
The second reason was the ban on constructing or rehabilitating commercial single-storey buildings, which drove away people who lived in Huye town, crippling economic activity.
As a result, some businesses closed, others moved to Kigali because there were very few customers in Huye, Murwanshyaka says.
In 2018, when the ban was lifted, the owners began to renovate their buildings and life started coming back in the town.
New buildings are coming up, while others which had long been closed have already been reopened and are back in use.
The district is also working to improve infrastructure. A pristine international stadium is one of the town’s icons; new roads have been built within the town and others are under construction.
The district also sees the realignment of the university that saw an influx of students returning to Huye as important.
“There are many services that benefit from the increased market,” says Ange Sebutege, Mayor of Huye.
“We also appreciate the role of students and the university in other social activities such as umuganda and their contribution to the development of the district.”
The relocation of UR schools was implemented in part to revive the town.
In the same spirit, recently, a cabinet meeting chaired by President Paul Kagame named several parastatals whose headquarters are slated to relocate to Huye.
Those to be relocated to Huye District are Rwanda Agriculture Development Board (RAB), the Higher Education Council (HEC) and the Institute of National Museums of Rwanda (INMR).
Huye will also be soon home to many services of the National Industrial and Research Development Agency (NIRDA) and the Workforce Development Authority (WDA).
“It is a decision that the people and leadership of Huye find commendable,” Sebutege says.
“The forthcoming relocation is another driving force in the development of the district.”
In town, Murwashyaka says, even the number of wanderers has decreased. “Now things have changed,” he says with a smile. “The town is promising.”