How Rwanda is Becoming the Singapore of Africa

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Africa is often viewed quite poorly on the
world stage.
The continent holds plenty of violent, corrupt,
and unstable nations and the majority of world’s
least developed countries, but Africa is big.
There are 54 countries there and not all fall
into the generalizations of the continent
as a whole.
Perhaps most notably, Rwanda.
One of the easiest ways to compare countries
is through their indicators and Rwanda’s
are impressive.
For every 100,000 residents, Rwanda has, on
average, only 2.5 murders per year.
As a point of comparison, that’s lower than
India’s 3.2 or the United States’ 5.4.
It’s even more impressive when looking at
the kind of neighborhood Rwanda is in.
Uganda has 11.5, Tanzania has 7, Burundi has
6, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo
has 13.6 murders per 100,000.
In addition, Rwanda is ranked as the 48th
least corrupt country in the world.
That’s not perfect, but on the continent,
only Botswana, a far richer country, ranks
The country also has a 67 year life expectancy,
tied for forth best in Africa, and only slightly
below the world average.
That 67 year number is believable, but what’s
truly unbelievable is that 25 years ago, the
average Rwandan had a life expectancy of 28
25 years ago, Rwanda was in the midst of one
of the most horrific genocides in history.
In only 100 days, 800,000 Rwandans were murdered
in the midst of this ethnic conflict.
The group primarily targeted, the Tutsi, saw
the loss of about 75% of its population.
With time, though, the country emerged from
the other end, peace prevailed, and its indicators
began their steady climb upwards to where
they are today.
It is now the 15th fastest growing economy
in the world as its government has set out
a clearly defined mission—they want to become
the Singapore of Africa.
To understand what this means, though, you
have to understand what Singapore is.
It’s easy to forget that east Asia was not
the highly developed, economically powerful
place it is today 100 years ago.
Many refer to the 1800’s as Britain’s
century, the 1900’s as America’s century,
and the 2000’s as Asia’s century.
It’s thought that we are currently in the
century where Asia will prevail and one of
the countries driving that is Singapore.
Singapore sits at the top of all the indicators—not
just for Asia, but the world.
It’s the eighth safest, third richest, third
least corrupt, third longest living country
in the world.
60 years ago, in 1960’s, Singapore’s economy
had a size of about $700 million.
Today that number is $320 billion.
In the last ten years alone its GDP has doubled.
It went from a definitively third-world country
to a definitively first-world country in less
than a lifetime.
The country is intensely focused on being
the business hub for Asia.
Of the world’s 20 largest companies, 15
have operations in Singapore.
It’s tough to look at the results of Singapore’s
economic development without being impressed.
They have done the nearly impossible.
Some of the ways Singapore has achieved this
growth, though, has met some criticism.
The way Singapore is run politically has been
described as, “paternalistic.”
It’s not quite authoritarian, but some freedoms
are lacking.
One of the few indicators that Singapore does
rank at the top of is the Democracy Index.
It scores a 6.4 out of 10 which ranks it at
66th in the world and categorizes it as a,
“flawed democracy.”
The elements of this paternalism range from
small things like the country’s ban on chewing
gum for cleanliness purposes to big things
like the limitations on freedom of speech,
assembly, and the press.
To this, proponents would say, “look at
the results.”
The country has succeeded economically based
off the trade that seemingly more and more
countries are embracing, “liberty for prosperity.”
Rwanda has been paying attention.
Paul Kagame, its president, declared that
mission to turn the country into, “the Singapore
of Africa,” and in many ways, it’s already
well on its way.
Arguing that Rwanda is authoritarian is easy.
On the same democracy indicator where Singapore
is categorized as a, “flawed democracy,”
Rwanda earns a score of 3.4 out of 10 and
the categorization of, “authoritarian.”
Paul Kagame was first elected in 2003, then
again in 2010, then again in 2017 with 98.8%
of the vote.
The US Department of State, though, described
that third election as having some, “irregularities.”
That also came after a constitutional amendment
lifting term limits to let Kagame take power
He is clearly well-liked and impressive.
He began his career in the military, played
a part in toppling the oppressive governments
of Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC, and has been
described as, “perhaps the most successful
general alive.”
He is by all accounts a military genius and
since his fighting days he has risen Rwanda
from chaos into peace and prosperity but as
a political leader, he himself is still oppressive.
Just like Singapore, there are severe limitations
on the freedom of speech, assembly, and the
There are even accusations of Kagame supporting
or arranging the assassination of his political
Looking at the ends, though, there are clearly
more parallels with Singapore.
Singapore’s success as a business hub is
can be attributed to three factors: geographic
centrality, political stability, and ease
of doing business.
As part of Kagame’s mission, Rwanda is working
to improve these same three factors.
For the first factor, Singapore’s sits as
a central point in the world.
Within an eight hour flight one can get to
the major business hubs of the middle east
in the UAE and Qatar, all of India, all of
east Asia’s major business hubs, and all
of Australia.
Meanwhile, Rwanda sits only 600 miles or 950
kilometers from the geographic center of Africa.
It is about as central as you can get on the
enormous continent.
For both countries, though, geographic centrality
means nothing unless you can actually get
to them.
One of Singapore’s largest companies is
Singapore airlines—often considered one
of the best if not the best airline in the
Thanks to this airline, one can get from Singapore
to five different continents in a matter of
It’s easy to underestimate the importance
of having a globally competitive airline to
establish a city as a business hub.
It’s safe to say that other business hubs,
such as Dubai and Doha, would not be as influential
as they are today without their airlines.
Rwanda has clearly noticed this.
Their national airline, Rwandair, which is
government owned, has grown from a tiny operation
with a few regional jets to a significant,
intercontinental airline operating brand new
They now fly all around Africa, to Dubai,
Brussels, and London and have even announced
plans to start one-stop service to both Guangzhou,
China and New York.
While the airline is not yet nearly at the
level of some larger players on the continent
like Ethiopian Airlines and South Africa Airways,
it’s serving its job effectively of connecting
Rwanda to the world.
The second factor to Singapore’s economic
success is political stability.
The World Bank rates countries in terms of,
“political stability and absence of violence
and terrorism,” and for this, Singapore,
unsurprisingly, comes up in the 99th percentile—better
than almost any country in the world.
This is a big reason why a CEO might choose
to set up their Asian hub in Singapore over
Hong Kong, for example, which only scores
in the 75th percentile for political stability
and is trending downwards.
They want to operate in a place that they
know won’t change quickly on a political
level since there are inherent costs involved
with a changing external environment.
Rwanda sits at the 48th percentile for this
political stability indicator, well in the
middle of the pack.
This isn’t phenomenal but, compared to the
sub-Saharan average of 31, it’s doing alright.
It’s a contentious issue whether elements
of authoritarianism promote or impede political
In Rwanda’s case, with so few years under
the current form of government, it’s tough
to know if the country really is stable or
Rwanda is now, by many accounts, a police
There are random checkpoints all around the
country and strict security at most buildings
in Kigali, the capital.
Kigali is now one of the cleanest cities in
Africa, let alone the world, partially due
to a ban on single-use plastics and plastic
bags but also because all able-bodied members
of the population are required to participate
in a community cleaning day on the last Saturday
of each month.
According to one report, there’s even widespread
unlawful detention of what are described as,
“undesirables,” on the streets.
The test of whether this country is truly
stable or rather in a state of temporary fear-based
obedience might not have yet come.
Rwanda has not experienced a transition of
power since 2000 and nobody really knows whether
the country can continue on the right path
after Kagame leaves.
He himself even said that if he had not groomed
a successor by 2017, “It means that I have
not created capacity for a post-me Rwanda.
I see this as a personal failure.”
It’s now well past 2017 and Kagame is still
in power with no signs of leaving.
Regardless of the reasons, though, for Rwanda’s
current political stability, it’s sure that
businesses like it.
It’s one of the top factors they look at
when deciding which countries to operate in.
The third factor that led to Singapore’s
business success, ease of doing business,
is perhaps the most important one and it’s
also the one at which Rwanda most excels.
This is a broad factor but it’s one that
the World Banks tracks with a well known indicator—the
Ease of Doing Business Index.
This looks at ten factors—ease of starting
a business, dealing with construction permits,
getting electricity, registering property,
getting credit, protecting minority investors,
paying taxes, trading across borders, enforcing
contracts, and resolving insolvency.
Singapore ranks as number two in the world
behind New Zealand and is followed up by Denmark,
Hong Kong, and South Korea.
Rwanda, meanwhile, scores as the 29th.
This is an impressive score by itself but
it is incredibly impressive when considering
how the rest of the continent ranks up.
Rwanda is by far the highest ranked among
mainland African nations.
The nearest trailing African nation is Morocco
at number sixty and plenty of highly developed
countries like the Netherlands, Switzerland,
and Japan rank lower than Rwanda.
To achieve this Rwanda has made plenty of
economic and legislative reforms to foster
the business-friendly environment.
They’ve also been focusing on building both
soft and hard infrastructure.
The government, in collaboration with private
investors, built an enormous $300 million
convention center along with a five star Radisson
Blu hotel to attract the convention market
in addition to less flashy infrastructure
projects building roads and airports.
Overall, Rwanda is on the hunt for international
investment in the country and so far, that’s
paid off.
In 2005, $10.5 million were invested from
abroad in Rwanda.
In 2017, that number was $293 million.
Clearly a lot is working in Rwanda.
It’s safe, clean, and growing economically.
What more could a country want?
Well, there are serious questions from abroad
on whether Rwanda’s growth is ethical, replicable,
sustainable, and even real.
The way Rwanda has achieved its current stability
and growth have some external observers condemning
Appearances of Rwanda can also be deceiving.
It is still one of the poorest countries in
the world with the average resident earning
only $750 a year.
Some question whether the country should be
spending so much on its airline, its infrastructure,
and its capital when so many in the country
are so poor.
Some question whether the country is growing
for its middle and upper class while leaving
its rural poor behind.
It’s no surprise, though, that many of the
countries neighbors, curbed by violence and
poverty, have pondered whether they should
be replicating the ways of Kagame.
External observers have given mixed answers
to that question.
Some believe that the the current authoritarian
policies will let dissent bottle up and eventually
They worry that the country will erupt into
violence again.
Some say that the current regime is solely
focused on making things seem like they’re
improving through climbing up the indicators
without making real, rational change.
There are even some accusations that Rwandan
GDP growth figures might be inflated or otherwise
It’s sure that Rwanda has been growing enormously,
but is it really this much?
There is no one recipe for economic growth.
The fact that the United States became the
superpower of the 20th century and China is
becoming the superpower of the 21st century
proves that more than anything.
Democratic states grow and autocratic states
grow—they might grow in different ways,
but there are success stories on both ends
of the spectrum.
What external observers have so much trouble
answering is the means to the end question.
Should Rwanda’s growth be lauded given how
it is achieved?
Can you tolerate some bad in exchange for
much good?
In the end, Rwanda is the country of Rwandans
and they are the only ones that matter with
these questions.
If Rwanda is truly working for all Rwandan’s,
then Rwanda is working.
There are a lot of, “ifs,” but if Rwanda’s
growth is sustainable and if Rwanda’s politics
are stable and if Rwanda’s investments pay
off and if businesses pay attention to Rwanda,
there is a very good chance that the country
is well on it’s way to becoming the Singapore
of Africa.
If you’re interesting in learning more about
Singapore, there’s a fascinating documentary
on CuriosityStream about how the country is
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growing, and aging population in its tiny
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