City reforms: Time for disruption!

A law modifying the current structure of the City of Kigali and its districts is currently being discussed in Parliament, raising divergent opinions both within and outside parliament.

Supporters of the reform argue that they will reduce red-tape for the implementation of infrastructure projects and enable the city to reach a size relevant for raising money through municipal bonds.

Opponents of the reforms argue that the reduction of elected officials will result into a democracy deficit.

Unfortunately, this discussion around city reforms is too much centred on the governance structure, yet it is an excellent opportunity to discuss the vision of the city and what it takes to go there.

There are at least three issues that should be discussed, if we take the vision of city of Kigali to become Africa’s administrative and business hub seriously.

First, there is an issue of market size. Kigali is our most important market and yet too small.

With around 1.2 million inhabitants, Kigali ranks amongst the smallest capital cities in Africa.

The contradiction of Kigali ranking at the top of ease of doing business, while at the bottom on the basis of market size is a contradiction we have to fix in order to attract more investments.

Certainly, one of the answers will be connecting to regional markets, but the volatility of our region indicates that we must increase local market size.

Thus, the question is how can Kigali have a market size at least three times bigger than today? Rationalising the number of districts within the City of Kigali is a step in the right direction.

Second, there is an issue of how Kigali interacts with the rest of the country.

Paul Collier, a British Development Economist, once provocatively said that Rwanda should concentrate on making Kigali a viable city instead of spreading resources thin in secondary cities.

Indeed, the top three African cities are bigger in population size than the whole of Rwanda. If we could have flyovers with high ways instead of the expensive curvy land roads, Rwanda could be a city State with 2-hours driving time between North and South.

It is thus surprising that some would find it an issue to rationalise the gap between Kicukiro and Nyarugenge, when the debate should actually be how to integrate Kamonyi, Bugesera and Rulindo as suburbs of Kigali.

Third, there is an issue of scale. The pace at which the housing market is developing, for example, calls for regulatory disruption.

According to the City of Kigali, over 70 per cent of the households live in informal settlements. This number continues to grow exponentially. The city thus needs exponential solutions whereby 1000 affordable housing units can be built at once. This requires audacious plans in partnership with the private sector, for example a new city centre in Bugesera.

The task ahead for Kigali City Authorities is enormous, Kigali’s urbanisation was not driven by industrialisation, people moved in before opportunities and infrastructure. The mobilisation of citizens will be the key to break this cycle.

There are encouraging signs whereby citizens work with the government to upgrade their neighbourhood, for example by splitting the costs of a tarmac road. These initiatives can be standardized, for example the Government can issue templates of neighbourhood roads, side-walks, community gardens to follow during Umuganda.

Another important tool will be e-governance as Kigali aims to be a smart city.

Applications to monitor broken down water pipes or traffic congestions can provide valuable data. To that end, the City can create an open smart city platform, whereby innovations regarding smart cities can be uploaded and tested.

The full expansion of Irembo services combined with a special status for international capital can allow the emergence of a financial hub. Kigali should therefore look at how to increase the number digital migrants.

Finally, we need a discussion around entertainment within the city that looks at structural causes.

The sun goes down when people are barely out of work, and everyone rushes to go home.

How pleasant would it be, if people had two hours of sunshine after work, by adopting the time zone of our Partner States in EAC? This may even reduce traffic congestion as people would do different activities after work.

In short, the reforms of the governance structure of the City of Kigali should be encouraged and expanded. At the core of the current debate is the question whether Kigali’s business plan is one for the rest of Africa or for Rwanda only.

If Kigali wants to be a hub, then Kigali needs a single business plan with a tangible market size, not one divided by districts. At the end, the success story of Kigali has always been influenced by innovative disruption!

The views expressed in this article are of the author.