Rwanda has a huge potential for tourism that’s not yet fully exploited, Arancha Gonzalez, the International Trade Centre executive director said.
Speaking during an exclusive interview with The New Times’ Kenneth Agutamba, in Kigali, last week, Gonzalez said Rwanda is well connected with a network of modern roads, and boasts good hotels, museums and a very intelligent conservation policy preserving wildlife, fauna and flora.
You were here just about a year ago for the World Export Development Forum (WEDF) which Rwanda hosted, what has honoured us with your visit again?
I decided to take my holidays in Rwanda this year because when I was here for the World Export Development Forum last year, I saw a bit of Kigali but didn’t get to see the entire country and its people, and I really wanted to see that. I made myself a promise to come back and explore the beauty of this country. So I have been here for that; I came with a group of friends who were excited about what I had to tell them about the country and, together, we have been on a discovery adventure of the amazing beauties of this country for tourism. My key discovery is that Rwanda contains, in itself, the entire Africa; so if anyone wants to discover Africa, you come to Rwanda; it has the Savanna, the mountain forests, volcanoes, a lake that looks like a sea, and of course the 1000 hills that I have been walking up and down. So it has been a very interesting experience for us.
With only a month to this year’s WEDF edition in Doha, what tangible achievements can you cite from the ambitious pledges made at the Kigali WEDF, eleven months ago?
We made two kinds of pledges; the first being business to business pledges and commitments and many of these have been honoured, contracts have been signed and sales have been made, remember we achieved over US$5m in deals. We have also started a deeper process of working in Rwanda and with Rwanda to help Small and Medium Enterprises to go international. A number of commitments were made with the government, including on training a hundred SMESs by end of 2015 to help them go international which we have accomplished. We also committed to help women in business, we also promised to support Rwandan SMEs to become certified for sanitary standards which we have done. So, I am proud to be here for my leisure but also be able to demonstrate that the work we have done has yielded concrete results.
ITC is a signing agency for Rwanda’s United Nations development assistance programme which runs up to 2018; under this programme, you’re currently designing a programme to boost competitiveness of Rwanda’s exports, what’s the latest update?
Since last year, we have been working under the One-UN umbrella here in Rwanda because ITC is part of the UN family and the One-UN has an understanding with the government to partner in delivering inclusive economic growth. In the last twelve months, we have worked alongside as members of the UN family, the Rwanda government and the private sector to implement a plan to help SMEs go international. A number of activities and actions have been undertaken such as training a hundred SMEs to be export ready and three of them are in the process of transacting with companies in the Netherlands and Switzerland. Now three might be a low number but there’s an important supply chain benefiting over 500 small farm holdings supplying pineapples to these three companies in the pineapple sector which helps create jobs and boost incomes for women and youths which is our objective as One-UN.
How long is the journey to overturn the country’s current huge balance of payment?
I should, first of all, say that the current balance of payment deficit Rwanda has is a normal thing for a country that is developing because you need to import a number of capital goods as you still develop exports. This we have seen in every developing country, so I am not surprised by the current BOP deficit. What matters to me is to understand whether the fundamentals of the Rwandan economy are moving in the right direction to reduce this current deficit in the long run. And my personal view, which has been reinforced by my visit here, is that the fundamentals are going in the right direction.
What are these fundamentals?
First, in order to have a strong economy and reduce the BOP deficit, you need to invest a lot in education to produce the skilled workforce and what I’m seeing here in Rwanda is enormous effort at building capacity in the education sector. The second thing you need is to work on the competitiveness of your economy which essentially calls for investing in infrastructure. I can tell you that just the other day, I took the road from Cyangugu to Kibuye, half of it is well paved, half of it being paved, and I can tell that it makes a big difference. I walked at the border post in Rusumo between Rwanda and Tanzania, I saw a brand new bridge allowing trucks with higher tonnage to go through, so you’re on the right track. So, first, education, second, infrastructure and you’re going in the right direction. The third area for special focus is SME development because they make up to 98 per cent of this country’s economy. By empowering them to move from micro to small then to medium and, finally, to big enterprises, you would have given yourself the tool to promote more trade and gradually reduce BOP deficit.
And apart from development of direct commodity exports…?
With all said, from what I have seen during my holiday, I must add that Rwanda has a huge potential for tourism, a potential that’s not yet fully exploited. And if I had one message to give, it would be, make sure you exploit this huge potential that you have in the tourism sector. You’re a small country well connected with a network of modern roads and boasts good hotels, museums; you also have a very intelligent conservation policy preserving wildlife, fauna and flora. When I saw that a good amount of the revenues I paid to trek the gorillas go to the surrounding communities, I realised that I was indirectly empowering this local population to become the biggest defenders of wildlife in the volcanoes park. So you have an amazing package to offer to tourists and all you need to do is put it to better use.
Your partnership with Rwanda running up 2018, what are the deliverables we should watch out for?
The end goal is to graduate from being a least developed country to being a middle income country. But this is a journey and it’s not going to happen in a year; what I would like to see in 2018 is as much progress as we have seen in the last ten years. What counts are two things; the Vision and a clear plan to travel the journey and I think this country has a clear plan called vision 2020. What we need to achieve the vision is have a very clear political system with firm political will, with capital ‘W’, which will ensure that this plan is executed and for that you need accountability. What I saw recently, where leaders have to come and account for what they have achieved in the last year (Imihigo) is the kind of accountability mechanism that guarantees results.
Most Rwandans believe that to attain that vision and safeguard the current progress, they must retain President Paul Kagame’s leadership beyond 2017; as a matter of fact, Rwandans have instructed Parliament to initiate the process to amend Constitution and remove term limits; will international development agencies like yours, support the will of Rwandans?
Fortunately, the Rwandan vision is the vision of the people of Rwanda not the vision of the President or the government, that’s because it was constructed from bottom-up and that’s what counts. I admire the way the Rwandan vision was crafted because it involved every citizen of the country to play an active role towards its journey. You can’t move a country from being poor to middle income without involving the citizenry. The leadership is important for mobilsation and that sense of direction is clear. Now, as to what will happen or will not happen after 2017 to this country’s political system; again this is a matter on which I’m very impressed because Rwandans are discussing it, they’re managing the debate. During my stay here, I have talked to lots of people in this country, from drivers to guides to waitresses to persons in the streets; they’re discussing 2017 and that’s a clear example of democracy. At the end of the day, if they decide that the best thing to do is to continue with the current leadership, then that’s what counts and we, development partners, will have to respect the will of the people. So, let the people of Rwanda decide but whatever their decision, let’s make sure that the vision continues.
EAC recently signed a comprehensive EPA deal with Europe which trade critics lambasted as unfavorable especially its most favored nation clauses that limit the region’s flexibility in negotiating future deals with other countries such as China. You have vast experience in these things, what is your expert opinion on the EAC-EPA deal?
My starting point would be that I respect deals that are negotiated and signed by governments who are ‘adult governments’ so as far as I’m concerned, the time of neo-colonialism where African governments would be told what to do, is over. Governments know what they want to do, they debated this and I know that there was a big debate here in East Africa between governments and the private sectors of the region to get to a deal they think works for them. So if the East African governments and private sectors think the deal works for them then I think it works for them. My view is that a deal has to work for all parties involved. It’s a give and take in any deal. What I see in the East Africa-EU deal is that there is give and take on issues that matter to each party. My sense is that it’s a good deal in that it moves one step forward to this idea that it’s important to gradually open up the East African economy to other economic blocs. They have done this with the EU and they are now starting an interesting dialogue with the Gulf Cooperation Council meaning the region of the Gulf; a very important region for the EAC and I am sure that they will reach a deal that’s beneficial to both regions.
At least 15 per cent of Sub Saharan African countries are landlocked, including Rwanda, how is ITC supporting efforts to link these countries to the global trade highways in spite of their geographical disadvantage?
We advocate for three components. The first is a legal/treaty component where we have international, regional and bilateral agreements that seek to remove obstacles to trade, such as non tariff barriers to trade. For instance, the recent agreement in the World Trade Organisation on trade facilitation cutting red tapes at customs is very important for landlocked countries because it does away with red tape which is important for countries that have to go through multiple customs. For example, the recent agreement between DR Congo and Rwanda, and I was at the Gisenyi-Goma border, what I saw there is amazing. You have these 45000 women trading across the border every day, they use their identity cards which the customs officials scan and let them through to spend one day in Goma trading. Why? Because the recent agreement between the two countries allows for that. The second intervention is in hard infrastructure in form of roads, bridges to connect countries to wider markets. The third is working on specific areas to improve competitiveness among SMEs. So we empower landlocked countries through these three elements; treaties, infrastructure and competitiveness, and all of them, as far as I can see here in Rwanda, are being implemented and, again, we shouldn’t expect miracles because competitiveness isn’t built in a year, it’s a long term process, what counts in a process is the sense of direction and that, we have.