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Rwanda turns to hosting events to boost economy

Blue, yellow, green: As night falls, the dome of the Kigali Convention Center lights up, resplendent in the colors of Rwanda’s national flag, as the country aims to draw all eyes to the capital and beyond. of the.

In less than a decade, the small, landlocked nation has established itself as a destination for conferences, sports tournaments and other events, billing itself as the “Singapore of Africa” ​​to boost the economy.

“Rwanda is one of the most stable countries in East Africa… People feel comfortable and safe when they come to these kinds of meetings,” he said. ‘Agence France-Presse Senegalese agricultural expert Ghislain Kanfany on his arrival for a conference of African plant growers. .

Photo: Reuters

Although rights groups regularly accuse Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s administration of crushing dissent and keeping an iron grip on power, Kigali’s clean, well-paved streets and modern infrastructure make a first impression. positive on many visitors.

Organizers say low levels of bureaucracy and effective handling of the COVID-19 pandemic also make it easier to hold large-scale events in the country.

“There’s not a lot of red tape,” said Kuben Pillay, a South African International Cricket Council official who was in town for a qualifying tournament.

Before the pandemic, conference revenues jumped nearly 40% between 2016 and 2019, according to Rwandan government figures.

Kigali was second only to Cape Town in terms of the number of events held in Africa, the International Conferences and Conventions Association said.

The proliferation of new infrastructure over the past six years – including the convention center, whose dome is inspired by the beehive-shaped palaces of Rwanda, the Gahanga cricket stadium or the 10,000-seat Kigali Arena, the most large indoor hall in East Africa – helped develop the fledgling industry.

Hotel owners also sensed an opportunity, with major international chains setting up shop next to the convention center.

The authorities are injecting funds to develop the national airline RwandAir and build a new international airport on the outskirts of the capital.

“The Government of Rwanda has [put] a lot of effort to make sure people can feel safe at their event” in the country, said Janet Karemera, deputy director of the Rwanda Convention Bureau, the sector’s public promotion agency.

However, the success of this fast-growing sector has raised concerns among rights advocates, who have accused Rwandan authorities of rounding up street vendors, homeless people and sex workers ahead of high-profile events such as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

“Rwanda’s strategy to promote Kigali as a hub for meetings and conferences often means continued abuses of the capital’s poorest and most marginalized residents,” said Human Rights Watch Central Africa director, Lewis Mudge last September after the Commonwealth meeting was postponed due to the pandemic. .

“Rwanda’s Commonwealth partners have a choice: either stand up for the rights of victims or remain silent as repression is carried out in their name,” he said.

Government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo said the allegations were “fabricated reports…specifically calculated to harm a strategic sector of our economy“.

With the promise of bringing in foreign currency, authorities hope the sector will provide an economic boost to the landlocked nation, which depends on expensive imports.

Heavy investment in infrastructure has contributed to Rwanda’s debt, which rose from 15% of GDP in 2010 to almost 54% in 2019, according to a report by the French Development Agency published last year.

Conversely, conference revenues remain low at the moment — around 1% of GDP.

However, the government is counting on a “domino effect” to yield dividends, Karemera said.

Trevor Ward, managing director of Nigerian consultancy W Hospitality Group, said the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions industry brings many direct and indirect economic benefits.

“The most obvious is job creation, then you have the links to support the industries: catering, audiovisual, drivers, cleaners, flowers, etc.,” he said.

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