John Dick is the chairperson and founder of multi-billion dollar satellite company, O3B, which focuses on providing high-speed Internet connection. He has also been involved in real estate development, among other ventures, both in Europe, United States and beyond. Dick is Rwanda’s honorary consul to his native small British island, Jersey. The New Times’ Felly Kimenyi had an interview with him in which Dick shared how his passion for Rwanda has developed as well as the country’s investment prospects.
How did your story with Rwanda start?
Around 2000, I received a call from a Rwandan ambassador to London. I had never had contact with Rwanda. Then out of the blue, the ambassador said that President Kagame was going to be in the country and wanted us to meet.
Because I had been involved in some other African countries for a decade or two and I was always having problems in whatever I did because of political corruption and bureaucracy problems, I didn’t want to get involved in Africa any more.
However, when I said this to the ambassador, she insisted President Kagame was different and honest and he just wanted to get things done for his country that was coming out of the  Genocide [against the Tutsi].
As I was trying to create a whole lot of excuses about what was going on in Rwanda and DR Congo, she never made excuses but just admitted it and assured me that change is in the process. So I wrote the letter inviting President Kagame to Jersey and the embassy called me from London to tell me that he would be arriving from London.
He flew over, with a couple of ministers and they stayed for a couple of days but we just did nothing but talk nonstop about the problems and challenges in Rwanda and on the last night, he invited me to Rwanda. He asked me to spend a week in the country, and talk to anybody I really wanted about the country.
Later, the President went to America and saw a couple of projects I had worked on and he said if I would help in figuring out what to do with Kigali because at that time, Kigali had no master plan.
Tell us about your company and what kind of work you deal with?
I had spent a couple of decades doing major real estate development in major cities in different countries and I think that was President Kagame’s primary interest in me at the time.
And, also because of my family background, Genocide kind of gets to me. My parents were both born in the Ukraine, they were of Russian heritage and in the 1780’s they resettled in the Ukraine because they were facing religious prosecution in Europe, because their religious beliefs don’t accept them to fight or fight in an army, something got to do with war and killing.
So that’s one of the reasons I got so interested and committed to Rwanda. When I meet people of this great country, getting to meet a person like President Kagame, experiencing his sincerity, the sense of vision he had, it just became hard to resist. And it’s one of the best experiences of my life.
Now that you established this relationship between Rwanda, what projects have you been involved with?
Well, there are number of things, I introduced the land planners and architects who had done my projects in America to Rwanda and they have worked here for the last ten to twelve years.
They have done master planning, they are also doing a lot of work at King Faisal Hospital, Kigali, to turn it into a major centre of excellence for the continent of Africa and we are still working on that.
I have lived in Jersey for the last 40 years and it’s a small country in that centre of Europe that is kind of like Singapore in a way. It’s a low tax finance centre, a lot of people have their trusts there as they try to protect their assets there in a legitimate way and they really ensure them of their survival.
I think Rwanda can become the Jersey of Africa. It’s a stable country and the kind where people from all over Africa will feel comfortable putting their faith in the trust system.
One of the things I have been working on these years, which is now coming to fruition and we are just on the verge of signing a double tax agreement between Jersey and Rwanda which will be the first agreement between Jersey and any country on continent Africa. And, I think it will open doors for Rwanda to develop its financial system - the kind that jersey has.
The most rewarding project in a way had to do with milk production because when I first came here in Rwanda, I was appalled by the level of milk production compared to the heads of cow that the country had.
I was shocked to find out that Rwanda, a population of over 10 million people, had not enough milk to drink with over a million cows, yet they don’t do products like butter, or anything.
Back on the island of Jersey, I have cows; one single cow produces 40 litres of milk a day so I worked on that too for the improvement of cattle breed and milk production in Rwanda when I tried to get a couple of bulls from jersey right here in Rwanda.
As you know my country is home to the highly productive Jersey breed of cattle and we continue to work on improving cattle breed here through artificial insemination.
You said you had been frustrated with Africa and didn’t want anything to do with it. What in Rwanda changed your mind?
In other countries, eventually, somebody would show up and demand for a bribe.
Someone wants to run a business successfully, they go to a bank deposit some money on an account of a certain official in government, and all of a sudden, everything becomes possible and that would always happen in one firm or another.
This has never happened to me in Rwanda in everything that I have done, never a hint of a bribe.
Do you see Kigali develop to the level of any developed city?
Okay, looking at that, it is going to take a long time taking the right steps in order to get there. When the new airport is built and becomes functional, you will see the beauty about Rwanda.
This is a small country with only a population of 11 million people but it sits in an area where there are over 150 million people surrounding Rwanda that are closer to Kigali than they are to their own capitals.
Now what that means, if Kigali can build a beautiful new regional airport, it needs to be far bigger than just the service in Kigali and Rwanda; it needs to service those 150 million people.
An example of that would be two of the largest projects that I did in America in Denver, Colorado. Denver International Airport, which is a new airport built in the last fifteen years, is one of the ten busiest airports in the world and it is the largest airport in the United States, by total area covered.
Denver only has a population of one and a half million, the state of Colorado has a population of only two million. How in the world can it have an airport which is that busy?
Well the reason is, Denver serves the whole region of over eight states in the Rocky Mountain Region. So a lot that comes there from other parts of the world and North America goes through Denver. And so Denver airport is a huge driver to the economy.
So that’s what I can also see for Rwanda because when you used to talk to people, 20 years back, about Denver having the kind of that airport, they would just say I don’t know about that.
And I know the same story can be replicated in Kigali. I know how much that has happened since I was first here. The roads were horrible, most of the buildings had shell marks in them. And so the transformation of the city is totally remarkable.
And I believe that last year, Kigali was voted the safest city in Africa. People feel secure here and that’s totally due to President Kagame’s leadership skills and the kind of government he has. This, is another incentive that will make this city a central hub.
What do you think Rwanda should do to be able to attract more Foreign Direct Investors, especially in the United Kingdom?
The British system of laws is a great example to follow, it’s respected all over the world and to a large extent, Rwanda follows that system.
And I think Rwanda has the most stable government around Africa like some of the steps that are being taken now like for instance having a stable taxation agreement with Jersey, establishing the laws so that a proper trust industry can take place here, where institutions can come in and feel protected.
And above all, trying to keep taxes low, the lower you can get corporate taxes is the more business is going to come in.
Is jersey a fully independent country?
Yes and no. Jersey has a unique status with London which has lasted for over 1,000 years. It has its own parliament, it passes its own tax laws and it pays no taxes at all to Great Britain.
Great Britain however is responsible for our defense and foreign affairs and that’s an agreement that was reached almost 900 years ago and hasn’t changed. It’s very unusual arrangement that something would last that long.
What would you want to tell us in conclusion?
I became a Rwandan citizen about twelve years ago which was offered to me by the government and felt honored and then shortly after they made me a consul general for Rwanda.
And a few weeks ago, I was notified that I was appointed the Rwandan ambassador at large and so that to me is a real honour and it has greatly increased my attachment to Rwanda and its people.