Rwandan villages, proof of economic growth

In every administrative sector in Rwanda, there are numerous stories of people who have risen from extreme poverty and are now relatively wealthy.
Joseph Rwagatare
Joseph Rwagatare


In every administrative sector in Rwanda, there are numerous stories of people who have risen from extreme poverty and are now relatively wealthy.

They tell their stories at public gatherings in the fashion of evangelicals giving testimony: “I was once this but now I am that” and obviously very pleased with the transformation.

Some started with as little as 25,000 francs and are today worth several millions. Others used to be homeless labourers and now own several houses and multi-storey commercial buildings in the major towns.

One time street hawkers have become wholesale traders or transporters with fleets of vehicles. The landless have become large-scale farmers.

At first, they sound like fairy tales – the rags to riches sort. But they are so many and widespread that they cannot be the work of a single fairy or even a family of fairies.

Now, they may be supernatural and can be in several places at the same time, and they are generous to the most disadvantaged.  But experience has shown that fairies are usually selective and use their powers rather sparingly.

What we are seeing cannot be their work.

In any case, there are people who are averse to spirits and cannot ascribe anything to beings from the nether world. These tend to be sceptical about most things anyway and will probably say these are rehearsed stories, put on to show that this country is making progress.

There is an answer to that as well.

The stories are not invented. The characters are not the creation of some writer of fiction. They are real people with families, neighbours and even employees. Their actions are visible, not imagined. Their joy is genuine and cannot be rehearsed. The tax authorities know about them. Even pastors know about what they do and demand their ten percent accordingly.

If they are not beneficiaries of the generosity of fairies or the creation of writers of fiction, what is behind these numerous success stories?

These are examples of the thousands of Rwandans who have taken full advantage of the opportunities open to them.

They are faces to the statistics we are used to hearing. The testimonies are illustrations of those figures.

For most of us, with little inclination to maths, this is the reality of such reports as: the economy has been growing at an average of 8% for the last ten years; poverty was reduced by 12 percentage points in a period of five years and that translated into a million people being lifted out of poverty.

When the central bank weighs in on these matters, and proves that what the citizens in the provinces are saying is true, you have to believe. Banks of any sort, least of all central banks, do not do fairies.

They deal in facts and figures, trends and projections and similar things – all, of course, expressed in one statistical form or another.

More Rwandans have access to financial services as the Governor of the National Bank of Rwanda, John Rwangombwa, said last week at a conference on financial inclusion and also the Bank’s 50th anniversary celebration.

At the creation of Rwanda’s central bank in 1964, there was only one commercial bank. Today, there are sixteen and nearly five hundred micro-finance institutions.

In 1994, there were a few hundred bank accounts. Today, there are more than five million.

In 2000, banks held Rwandans’ deposits worth 121 billion francs. By 2013 that figure had risen to 1.6 trillion francs.

Today, more than 90% of Rwandans live within a walking distance of an Umurenge Sacco.

These figures are, of course, far from the thinking of the thousands of ordinary Rwandans who share testimonies about their achievements and improved lives. But they are linked -  as proof of the country’s improving economic performance.

For the majority of Rwandans the evidence of continued growth is in the quality of life they now lead and in the tangible possessions they have. Wealth is measured in physical terms as well as in quality of well-being.

Economists and government officials use a different representation and measure of the same. They present it in figures and graphs, a universal language, shorn of any sentiment, that makes it credible and available to a wider audience.

So the evidence of Rwanda’s growth is there for all to see. Sceptics may quarrel with the report that the economy is growing fast – at a certain rate. They can even refuse to believe it.

But no one can fail to see the evidence of a woman who used to sell tomatoes by the roadside and now has blocks of shops which she lets out to other traders.

No one can be blind to the proof of a one-time porter who now has a fleet of lorries that ferry potatoes to the city and return with assorted merchandise for customers in the provinces.

This is the story of Rwanda today. It is not a fairy tale, but the real story of living people making a difference in their lives.

Twitter: @jrwagatare