Rwanda is a beautiful, mountainous, landlocked country in the Great Rift Valley of Africa. Its capital Kigali has become increasingly well known to expats as the economic prospects of the country gradually improve.
But Kigali is different from many other African expat cities: whereas Luanda and Windhoek are principally known for giving foreign companies access to mining and oil resources, Kigali aims to establish itself as something rather more progressive. So – from an expat perspective – what are the strengths and weaknesses of this intriguing city?
Pro: economically resurgent
There is a sense of optimism in Kigali. Although the Rwandan economy was destroyed by the genocidal conflict that took place in 1994, much has changed since then. In 2000 the Rwandan government began to encourage private sector investment, to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country. The Rwandan economy has since been growing steadily at 7% every year.
Unlike many other African countries, Rwanda does not have extensive natural resources. Yet its tourism industry is thriving and the government is encouraging entrepreneurialism in the manufacturing and services sector, particularly in areas such as ICT and green energy. Professional expats will find it a trouble-free place to work: Rwanda is one of the least corrupt countries in Africa (according to the 2019 Corruption Index) and the easiest ‘low-income country’ (LIC) to do business in according to the 2019 World Bank Doing Business index.
Con: few imported goods
Shopping is cheap in Kigali – but limited. Don’t expect miles of shopping malls and Western brands. While Kigali has developed a lot in recent years, most shopping is done in small, local shops – which means that expats who are used to the convenience of supermarkets may struggle.
It can be, however, an immensely rewarding experience with fresh local produce everywhere, typically including sweet potatoes, beans, corn, peas, millet, plantains, cassava and fruit.
Restaurants are also extremely reasonable. Annette Swale, an expat from New Zealand living in Kigali notes that a family of four can eat out for around $30 and that a beer can be bought in one of the many bars for around $1.50.
Pro: nature everywhere
Particularly during the wet season (September to May), the Kigali valley is green and lush. Kigali has not been designed to accommodate green spaces as you might expect in the world’s larger, more established cities but it is surrounded by beautiful African countryside at its wildest.
Expats have the opportunity to go on safari in Rwanda's Akagera National Park, where they can usually spot the ‘Big 5’. (In case you didn’t know, that means: lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo).
The Volcanoes National Park, only 50km north of Kigali, is also one of the few remaining places in Africa where mountain gorillas can be seen in the wild. But be warned: tourists require permits, which cost around $1,500 per person.
Con: the ups and downs of life in Kigali
Rwanda is known as ‘the Land of a Thousand Hills’; Kigali nestles amongst eleven of them. While the hilly topography gives Kigali some stunning natural panoramas, it also makes it an exhausting place to navigate. One piece of advice every Kigali expat will give you, therefore, is to hire or buy a car.
Local and regional bus services are available, but the most popular form of transport is to hire either a private taxi or a moto-taxi. The former is more expensive but safer: moto-taxis are motorcycle drivers for hire, who swarm around Kigali and provide an exhilarating way to get about the city if you don’t fancy walking. (Local tip: make sure the passenger helmet provided by your driver fits and fastens properly!)
Expats are often surprised to find that Kigali is a very clean city. In 2008, Rwanda was one of the first African countries to ban plastic bags entirely, with the result that its streets are not cluttered by this non-biodegradable detritus that blights many Western cities.
However, the most important reason for Kigali’s cleanliness can be summed up in one word: umuganda. Literally meaning ‘contribution’, umuganda describes a compulsory day of service every month that each Kigali resident puts into public projects such as school renovations, public home building and, of course, street cleaning.
Preparing for growth
The future seems bright for Kigali. While its economic growth has been dented by COVID-19, the trend is for the city to continue to grow in importance and size.
In September 2020, a major urban planning program was announced as Kigali prepares to increase its population from the current 1.6m to 3.8m by 2050. As its prospects improve, expect the expat community to grow accordingly.