Interview: TVET will drive Rwanda’s manufacturing sector– Korean envoy

It has been six months since the Korean Ambassador to Rwanda took residence in Kigali. The appointment of envoys in both capitals came as a result of reciprocal visits involving high profile government officials and demonstrates growing bilateral ties between the two countries. The New Times’ Felly Kimenyi interviewed the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea in Rwanda, Soontaik Hwang, and below are excerpts.
Soontaik Hwang during the interview. The New Times/J. Mbanda.
Soontaik Hwang during the interview. The New Times/J. Mbanda.

It has been six months since the Korean Ambassador to Rwanda took residence in Kigali. The appointment of envoys in both capitals came as a result of reciprocal visits involving high profile government officials and demonstrates growing bilateral ties between the two countries. The New TimesFelly Kimenyi interviewed the Ambassador of the Republic of Korea in Rwanda, Soontaik Hwang, and below are excerpts.

The New Times (TNT): Please tell us the situation on the current relations with between the Republic of Korea and Rwanda.

Soontaik Hwang (SH): To start with, this is what I can call good timing for the interview. Rwanda and the Republic of Korea will this year mark 50 years of formal bilateral relations.

The bilateral relations are at what I can call an impressive stage, starting with establishment of diplomatic missions in both our capitals plus the reciprocal visits by high ranking officials from both governments and members of the private sector.

We have also signed an agreement through our ministers of foreign affairs to guide our relations and it is also this agreement that establish the major areas of cooperation which include political, economic and cultural exchange programmes.

In 2008, President Paul Kagame visited our country and this was followed by the opening of the  Rwandan embassy in our capital Seoul. In 2011, President Kagame had another state visit in my country and this resulted into the establishment of our embassy in Kigali, for which I am very honoured to have been the first resident Korean ambassador in Rwanda.

I am, therefore, very happy to witness the growing ties between our two countries. The development cooperation framework that was signed by Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo and her counterpart from my country in New York, in February, this year, was followed by the ratification of the investment protection agreement.

I believe these two important instruments will not only benefit our governments but also the business communities in our countries. The Korean business people are interested in the Rwandan market and this is why we recently saw an agreement signed between Korea Telecom and Rwanda Development Board for the extension of LTE technology in Rwanda.

Regarding development cooperation,  the Korean government will this year almost double the development assistance allotted to Rwanda and in terms of exchange of people, the number of Korean visitors to Rwanda has been increasing gradually and last year we saw about 850 Korean coming and we expect the number to grow as the relations solidify.

TNT: The Hyndai Automobile Company will soon open a showroom in Kigali. What is the significance of this development?

SH: The showroom is expected to be opened in mid May but it will not be directly operated by Hyndai, but rather an individual dealer who has an agreement with the company.

However, I believe this is a very good sign that may lead to the direct presence of Hyndai itself in Rwanda because the showroom will present an opportunity for the country to woo the company to directly invest here, not in the short term, but in the long term.

TNT: How about other companies? Do we have many companies interested in the Rwandan market?

SH: At the moment, I think Rwanda is relatively a small market for the manufacturing sector but the most interest into this market is picked by the service sector companies in my country, in areas like ICT development, where Rwanda is developing at a tremendous speed with very good governance and with this development pace sustained, why not,  we will even see the manufacturers like Samsung establish base camp here.

And this is helped by Rwanda’s geographical location where it is centrally located, meaning it could be a good hub for these companies to establish a presence within east and central Africa.

I am, therefore, looking forward to seeing more Korean companies expressing interest in Rwanda.

TNT: What is the significance of the deal signed this March between Korea Telecom and RDB (Rwanda Development Board)  through Rwanda Broadband Corporation?

SH: Since 2007, Korea Telecom had a project with the Rwandan government to install the fibre optic cable in the whole of Rwanda and also establish the backbone network. It was a project worth, I guess, over $100 million.

After they successfully executed the project, the two parties entered the second phase of the project which is the agreement signed in March that established a kind of a joint venture to deploy high speed broadband services based on 4G LTE technology, and this service will be availed to Rwandans, even in the remotest parts of the country.

I am sure this project will greatly drive the very good initiatives this country has in place such as the e-government and e-health because it will be available in all corners of the country.

After the successful implementation of this phase, I believe Rwanda and Korea Telecom will have a very good success story to share with other African countries and the two parties will extend their services first within East Africa and later beyond.

TNT: As you said earlier, there have been reciprocal high-level visits between the two countries and the opening up of diplomatic posts in both capitals in just a few years. Do you think there is a special kind of relationship between both countries?

SH: President Kagame picked a particular interest in our country, and having visited different institutions in Korea and looked at our constitution, decided to open up an embassy in my country. Our subsequent opening up of an embassy in Kigali was not only in reciprocity of the good diplomatic gesture by Kigali but also the strategic interest we saw in this country.

We surveyed and examined Rwanda’s vision; this country is a model for good governance and also in terms of aid effectiveness. Based on this, Korea has positioned Rwanda as a priority country in terms of bilateral ties.

TNT: Korea is seen as one of the model countries that have successfully implemented and benefitted from Technical and Vocational Training and Education (TVET) programmes which Rwanda has currently made priority. What insights do you think Korea can share?

SH: In the cooperation between my country and Rwanda, we agreed that we would focus on three areas; TVET, ICT and rural development, especially in the agricultural sector.

The main goal is to have Rwandan learn and understand this model (TVET) to be able to develop independently in the mid and long term perspective. This is based on the philosophy of teaching man how to fish , rather than give him fish.

Regarding TVET, we have a long history in this area, dating back in the 1960s. The Korean government policy on TVET has changed with the different goals of industrial policy for economic development, depending on the era of the industrialization process.

For example, in the 60s, it was taking off period, in the 70s, it was promoting chemical and herbal industries, while in the 1980s, it was a rationalisation period, so for each era of industrial development, the policy on TVET has changed to meet the steady demand of labour necessary to drive our  economic development.

Rwanda’s economic growth strategy, as far as I understand, was a few years ago concentrating more on the promotion of the service sector, and not the manufacturing sector. But with just the service sector alone, you cannot create enough employment and this is why during the EDPRS 2 whose implementation starts this year, this government is looking at promoting the industrial and manufacturing sector.

I think it is a very right and timely strategy for economic development. Now with Rwanda prioritising the manufacturing sector, this is where TVET plays a very important role; without this kind of capacity building, even though you may want to invest in the sector, you cannot succeed because there is no workforce.

Now that Rwanda has realised and fully embraced the TVET programme, what needs to be done is ensuring that the kind of training offered in these technical institutions is in line with the development strategy of the country.

TNT: In conclusion, what message do you have for the Rwandan people?

During my tenure in Rwanda, I want to do my best to ensure that Korea remains a good – or even better friend and partner for Rwanda, especially in this crucial time of economic transformation of this country. My dream is to see the second Korea emerge  in Africa. Korea will accompany Rwanda on its journey.

This year, we will mark 50 years of formal bilateral relations between our two countries we want to see the relationship grow on different fronts, be it political, economic or cultural. For example, in the second half of this year, there is going to be a big (Korean) cultural event here which will involve music, dance, cinema, photo exhibition and Korean food will be showcased.

We will also hold an economic cooperation seminar which, I guess, will be a major catalyst in interesting Korean firms to look into the opportunities available in Rwanda.

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