Interview with Clare Akamanzi, Chief Operating Officer of the Rwanda Development Board
CAMBRIDGE, MA. The following interview was conducted by APJ’s Elizabeth Bennett on the sidelines of the recently concluded African Development Conference (ADC) held at the Harvard Law School. Ms. Clare Akamanzi is Chief Operating Officer of the Rwanda Development Board (RDB). The RDB is a government institution whose vision is to transform Rwanda into a dynamic global hub for business, investment, and innovation. Prior to RDB, Akamanzi was Deputy Director-General of the Rwanda Investment and Export Promotion Agency (RIEPA), a position she held from 2006-2008. She was also Rwanda’s commercial diplomat in London and a trade negotiator in Geneva for the Government of Rwanda at the World Trade Organization. Akamanzi is an international trade and investment lawyer. She attained her law degree in Uganda, and a Master’s in International Trade and Investment Policy in South Africa and the Netherlands.
Africa Policy Journal: Ms. Akamanzi, thank you very much for your time. During one of the earlier panels (Toward 54 Capable States to Deliver Development), you mentioned that Rwanda is currently ranked second amongst African nations in “Ease of Doing Business”. Can you walk us through the steps the government has taken over the past several years in order to make such incredible progress?
Clare Akamanzi: The government focused on doing reforms using the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report as a tool. Obviously, there were other reforms that the country had been doing before. But we’ve been using the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” report as a reference for about seven years. What the government did was, first of all, to understand how it’s performing, and why it’s performing the way it was. At the time we were ranked 150 out of 175 countries in the world. And then the government tried to understand, “what is it that we’re doing that’s not making us do well?” We went into the details of studying and understanding what the issues were.
Then the Cabinet of Rwanda put in place a Steering Committee, which would oversee the systematic implementation of reforms to make that happen. Because it was at the cabinet level, the President himself was a leader in making sure it happens. And the President himself supported all of the reforms. This was important because some of the reforms involved political will. So, without the President’s support, at that level, it would not have been easy. That was a great help—to have the Cabinet and President’s support, as well as the Steering Committee they put in place and also a technical working team to understand the reforms in detail.
And then, each year we began to write an Action Plan. So the first year we wrote down things we thought we could accomplish, and then following that plan took us a step forward. The next year we came up with another Action Plan. So every year we have a plan with very specific targets. And every year, because we have these Actions Plans, we’ve been able to move up in the rankings. We have moved from being ranked 150 to currently being ranked 32, which places us second in Africa—Mauritius is the only country that is ahead of Rwanda today.
APJ: Another topic you mentioned in the panel was the fact that Rwanda does not have as many natural resources as some of its neighbors. What do you see as Rwanda’s greatest resource?
CA: Our number one resource is our people and their ability to be effective, efficient and productive. But, obviously, we have other resources that support our development growth. We have some minerals—they bring in about $100 million a year. That’s not a big amount, but it’s meaningful for our economy. We also have agriculture. Our economy depends very much on our agriculture as well. And something we’re beginning to take advantage of is our location. We’re right in the middle of Africa—and we have decided to take advantage of that. For example, we have an airline that flies to almost every corner of Africa. It is the newest and fastest growing airline in Africa. It’s now flying to about fifteen destinations within the African continent. And then we are trying to build a trading platform. For example, we export to Congo-Brazzaville, a market which is completely new. But because we are building on the fact that we are in the center of Africa, we can connect people. And we are organizing ourselves to connect the rest of Africa.
APJ: Education is another priority for Rwanda. You previously mentioned educational partnerships with organizations in places such as South Africa and India. When did the government decide to make these partnerships a priority and what effect do you think that has had on development within Rwanda?
CA: When the new government came into power, our leadership immediately prioritized education. As I said, our people are our biggest resource. And the best way you can develop that resource is by giving them as much education and empowerment as possible because the more exposed, educated and supported the people are, the more innovative and productive they are. So education is number one.
Our development plan states that we want to become a service-based economy by the year 2020. That means having people that can provide those services, and high quality services. So, it has been a priority from the beginning and we have invested a lot into education over time. And we have seen good results. Today, for example, the biggest contributor to our GDP is the services sector, even more than the agricultural sector which used to be the biggest. And we are beginning to see interesting new sectors such as financial services, transport, and telecommunications contributing to the economy more than before.
APJ: When did you begin to see a significant shift from agriculture to financial services?
CA: Less than five years ago.
APJ: You mentioned financial services and telecommunications as two examples of budding service industries. Is that the direction you plan to continue?
CA: Yes. And with telecommunications, we see it expanding into information technology (IT). We have seen both IT and logistics become more important. Again, the logistics industry is taking advantage of our location.
APJ: Are you incentivizing students to study IT?
CA: Yes. We give scholarships mainly to students studying IT and other science technology. You are more likely to earn a scholarship if you plan to study science and technology. Our approach to growth is very integrated.
APJ: What do you see as the Rwanda Development Board’s (RDB) role in promoting development?
CA: Our economic development path requires that the private sector play a big role. So our role, in particular, as RDB is to develop and promote the private sector so that they can do more in the country’s economic development path. It is promoting more investments. It is facilitating existing businesses. It is making it easier by improving the business climate. So it’s really, in short, to develop and support the private sector so that they can play an increasingly bigger role.
APJ: The airline that you mentioned a few moments ago, is that a private company or a state company?
CA: It is owned by the government; it is called RwandAir.
APJ: What advice would you have for young people who are interested in working in development or are interested in promoting business in Africa?
CA: I would advise people against sitting on the side and just making judgment about what’s going on. I think that it’s important that young people get interested in the affairs of their countries, and participate. It’s when young people participate that we see the next generation taking on the values of the land.
APJ: Are there any specific policies that you view as being essential to Rwanda’s success?
CA: I’d actually say factors more than policies. The number one factor that we’ve seen from our experience in Rwanda is if the leadership of a country governs well, you are probably fifty percent done. In our case, we had a very visionary president who enabled and opened up opportunities for the country to do more. The policies that we ended up putting in place, including those around women and gender in economic development, have been very successful.
Also, fighting corruption is another place we’ve had a lot of success. And the same is true of enforcing law and order and rule of law. All that is able to happen if the leadership is visionary and pro-development. So that’s why I think that if you have the leadership right, you have half the problem solved. That leadership, in turn, enables the other half of development to happen. I think that was the number one factor for Rwanda. We have also fought corruption and promoted accountability. Our public sector officials are not just doing what they want, but they are being accountable to the people they serve. And because of that accountability channel, they actually report and show what they’re doing to the people they serve. Then, the people are able to give feedback and criticisms. In this way, it becomes an inclusive and participatory process where the people give feedback and support. That has been very important.
APJ: How do you respond to criticisms of the way the President has run the country?
CA: Well, the criticism may be coming from people who are not in Rwanda, because Rwandans have endorsed the President by overwhelmingly voting him into power. Some people believe the country should be run according to the ideals they have spelt out in their countries irrespective of a country’s context and choices. However, what I think is really important is that the people of Rwanda are able to decide who leads them, and if they are satisfied with their choice, that is what really matters in any country. Today, Rwandans will tell you they have tripled their incomes, practice accountability which implements a zero-tolerance for corruption and have added 20 more years to their life expectancy, among others. This is why we endorse our President’s leadership.
Elizabeth Bennett conducted this interview on Saturday, March 29, 2014 at Harvard’s African Development Conference. Ms. Bennett is the Senior Editor for Interviews of the Africa Policy Journal.