The prevailing peace and tranquillity enjoyed by residents of Rubavu in Western Province, and neighbouring Goma, capital of DR Congo’s North Kivu Province, offers dividends.
Improved security following long spells of turmoil in the past, residents say, has created an environment where people from both sides ably focus on the enormous untapped business potential in the region for prosperity.
Inside the bustling town of Goma, city roads that were previously in a pitiable state are newly refurbished, significantly boosting transportation. A lot of construction works is ongoing, with Rwandan builders and casual labourers largely benefiting from the employment opportunities.
These towns have two official border crossings; Grande Barriere, used by the regular traveller, and Petite Barriere, the farthest from Lake Kivu and the busiest as it links market zones from both sides of the border.
When The New Times met Jean Damascene Nzamurera, 43, a resident of Rubavu, at Petite Barriere as he hurried to work on the other side of the border, the engineer spoke of the abundance of fairly well paying jobs in Goma and that “it is Rwandan builders who are trusted to do a good job.”
“Things have changed compared to the past. At the moment, because of improved relations, life is better. In the past we would cross over to work at construction sites and get harassed or arrested,” Nzamurera said.
“And the money there is good too. For example, a casual labourer earns $6 (about Rwf5,000) per day, but those with technical know-how earn much more.”
Jean Baptiste Nyamulinda, a 57-year-old member of a transport cooperative of people living with disabilities in Rubavu, hopes things could get even better, saying he stands a better chance if the trade environment was further improved on either side of the border.
Sitting on top of a heavily-loaded cart as he waited for his patron to finish clearing, Nyamulinda said: “I make only one trip to the other side carrying goods, and earn only Rwf1,000 but if trade across the border improves, that means I would make more trips and earn more.”
According to Karim Habib, manager of La Corniche Motel, located near Grande Barriere in Rubavu, whenever there is calm, business picks up and Congolese hold conferences in Rubavu.
“Whenever security is not well in Congo, we are always affected,” Habib said.
Earlier this year, Rwanda hosted the African Nations Championship (CHAN), he noted, and hotels and pubs in Rubavu hosted hundreds of Congolese visitors.
He believes if the hotel and entertainment industry was well developed, many Congolese would visit.
There is potential in Rubavu. We don’t have many tourist attractions but with time, we shall have more people crossing, he said.
“This morning I saw about 26 soccer players from Congo cross to do their jogging and exercises and have fun in Rwanda. We have a bigger and better organised beach and better place for relaxation than Goma.”
Presidents Paul Kagame and his Congolese counterpart Joseph Kabila agreed to strengthen bilateral cooperation on energy generation, cross-border trade, and security when they met in Rubavu last month.
Habib said the latest meet of the two leaders will have significant impact.
He hopes that “the new relationship” will improve and, in the process, trade also booms.
“It’s a new relationship that will grow and, hopefully, the populace will feel more united and do more trade together. I receive many Congolese youth coming here with proposals on educational exchange activities and networking,” Habib said.
Robert Opirah, the director general for trade and investment at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, said cross-border trade is an important engine for Rwanda’s economic growth and development.
“Eastern DR Congo is currently Rwanda’s largest regional export market and is an area with immense potential for scaling up cross border trade between the two countries,” Opirah told The New Times.
Opirah explained that, in 2015, total trade between the two countries amounted to $164.5 million, majority of which were exports accounting $152.5 million arising from exportation of agro-processed, manufactured, fresh products and animals.
In 2015, formal trade increased by 15 per cent from $68.8 million in 2014 to $79.3 million in 2015 against a 37 per cent decrease in 2014 due to numerous restrictions placed on Rwandan exports (-22 per cent) into DR Congo.
Dansillah Nyirakaruje, a 55-year-old Congolese petty trader, rues the past when people back home confiscated her goods but nowadays she is encouraged.
“Previously, some people would seize our merchandise and stop us from going to Rwanda. They could tell us that we were coming to enrich Rwandans. But today, that kind of behaviour is no more,” Nyirakaruje said.
Even with the improved bilateral relations, however, people from both towns wish more would be done by both governments to further facilitate trade and ease movement of people.
At the extremely busy Petite Barriere section, traders encounter little or no bureaucracy on the Rwandan side thanks to the automotive passenger clearing system (APCS), a border control system introduced by Rwanda three years ago to speed up immigration processes for Rubavu residents.
Clearing system, 24-hour operation
Petite Barriere border is reportedly the first in Rwanda – and third in Africa – to clear many passengers per day with an average of between 38,000 and 45,000 people crossing in a day. Travellers through this point, however, want similar clearing system on the DR Congo side where they contend with usual sluggish immigration and customs checks.
Previously agreed on projects by the Economic Community of the Great Lakes (CEPGL) for establishing a one-stop border post (OSBP) with a 24-hour operation, it is said, could be very helpful if duly implemented by both countries.
People crave for additional border crossing time in addition to eased formalities, and appealed to the two governments to work together and quickly improve the infrastructure.
The New Times understands that even as the Rwandan side operated day and night at Grande Barriere, their Congolese counterparts close at 10pm.
The appeal for the border to be open 24/7 is mainly informed by the fact that during the African Nations Championship (CHAN), that border point operated 24 hours and there was no problem.
Besides, Nzamurera and other area residents also call for the busiest border crossing, Petite Barriere, not closed at 6pm as is the case today.
Nzamurera said: “It would be far better for business if Petite Barriere would be open for more hours after 6pm, say additional two or three hours.”
In the evening, Petite Barriere is a scene of frantic hustle as Rwandan traders rush back home before gates are closed. Plans are underway to construct a $8.6 million (about Rwf6.5 billion) modern bonded warehouse at Petite Barrière to further promote cross-border trade.
Residents and traders also see better things in coming days due to ongoing works on $18 million border project ($9m for each country) on Grande Barriere funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to reduce overall transit time for cargo and passengers.
Construction on the Rwanda side is expected to be completed in January, while work in DR Congo is planned to end in August 2017.