Bringing Japan closer to Rwanda

In the year 1990, while a high school student at Eto Gatumba Technical School in Ngororero, John M. Niyonzima met a Japanese teenager who was a volunteer teacher at the school.

In the year 1990, while a high school student at Eto Gatumba Technical School in Ngororero, John M. Niyonzima met a Japanese teenager who was a volunteer teacher at the school.

While attending his Technical Drawing classes, Niyonzima found himself drawn to his teacher’s character. “He was a very honest person, very smart and very wise,” Niyonzima remembers of his past teacher. “He inspired me. He also taught me Kendo, a Japanese martial art.

Some twenty years later, in 2009, Niyonzima met another Japanese national, Izumi Tanaka, who would leave another lasting impression on his life. Tanaka was touring Rwanda at the time when they met, and the two fell in love. Today, they are husband and wife.

After meeting Tanaka, Niyonzima’s intuition told him that his destiny lay with the people of Japan. A movie he watched, Last Samurai, seemed to seal his love affair with the country for good. The movie, by the Hollywood actor Tom Cruise and his Japanese counterpart Ken Watanabe tells the story of the Japanese’s systematic resistance to western imperialism.

So taken was he by the movie, that when he eventually emigrated to Japan to stay with his wife, he sought to visit the grave of Samurai, a famous Japanese warrior, in Aizuwakamatsu city on the first day.

The next day, he was on the bus to Lake Inawashiro, on whose shores sit the house of Dr. Noguchi Hideyo, a Japanese-born American bacteriologist who discovered the cause of syphilis and yellow fever and who worked to develop treatments for them.

In 1928, Noguchi traveled to Africa in an attempt to prove his findings about yellow fever. While working in Ghana, he died from the disease on May 21, 1928.

Opening shop

Just after one month of stay in Japan, Niyonzima teamed up with an American friend to set up Noguchi Holdings in Tokyo, Japan. Noguchi Holdings was a trading company that linked foreign investors to trade and investment opportunities in Japan.

“I got the chance to learn Japanese culture from my wife and in-laws who impressed me a lot. They were so organised, hardworking and kind. I liked the food too, especially tonkatsu ramen and tuna sashuimi.”

Home is best

After four years of work and family life in Japan, Niyonzima finally decided to pack his bags and head back home in Rwanda. 

The purpose of his trip is to further nurture his dream of offering a linkage between Japan (his second home), and Rwanda.

In Japan, his initiative was called Noguchi Holdings, but Niyonzima says it’s now time to set up shop at home in Rwanda, hence the idea for the Noguchi Hideyo Center for African Development and Technology Transfer.

The idea of NH Center, says Niyonzima, is to foster and strengthen the cordial relationship that exists between East African states and Japan by increasing trade, cultural and information exchange, among others.

On Japan’s relations with Africa he says: “Over the past decades, Africa relations have been growing especially in the field of poverty reduction, infrastructure development, capacity building and knowledge exchange channeled through the Japanese International Corporation Agency  (JICA) and bilateral agreements. Japan government has been of great support to the African economic revolution especially in the fields of agriculture, infrastructure, water and sanitation, and capacity building.”

Hence the Noguchi Hideyo Center, Niyonzima says, “seeks to achieve the main objective of impacting the African manufacturing industry, infrastructure and education through a streamlined and accessible one-stop center of the latest Japanese innovation and technology readily customized to inspire and drive economic development in the east African regional market.”

The Noguchi Hideyo center has set out some core objectives as well: facilitation of local companies to access the large Japanese market and technology; facilitate Japanese entrepreneurs and companies to access and trade with Africa; act as a one stop center for the free flow of information between different business communities, as well offer training for workforce development. 

Niyonzima reiterates the urgent need for trade partnerships with technologically advanced countries: “the main challenge facing the African entrepreneur is the lack of access and usage of innovation and technology in doing business and thus a high degree of low standards throughout the manufacturing and supply chains in Africa to meet international market standards. Africa’s failure to harness its resources of nature is attributable to lack of the required critical mass of human capital with appreciable knowledge and skills, value-added human capital, technology, and incentives to innovate.

Rwanda most suited

Niyonzima talks of the proposed Hideyo Noguchi Center as “a long term vision of building a Japanese innovation and technology hub in the four major blocs of Africa –South, West, North, East. “The project seeks to construct a one-stop center for innovation and technology transfer from Japan to the African continent, in addition to a Japanese language training facility, research and analysis bureau, as well an information center to advise on Japan-Africa business opportunities.

Rwanda, he concludes, has been chosen as the ideal base for the NH Center’s East Africa operations on account of several factors. 

“The country has embraced an ICT-driven development model and is the leading ICT success story in Africa; the country also has a business friendly environment as exhibited by the World Bank Doing Business rankings, as well a zero-tolerance policy to corruption,” he says.