By Elizabeth Littlefield
President and Chief Executive Officer,
U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation
I first visited Rwanda in the early 1990s when I was just beginning my career in development, and spent several months in the country advising the leadership of local microfinance institutions. In addition to being struck by Rwanda’s natural beauty — its sweeping vistas of terraced hills where even the smallest patches of land are used for farming — I was inspired by the enterprising spirit of many of the country’s small businesses and financial institutions that were working to develop the country’s agriculture, education and energy sectors. Both the natural scenery and the individual motivation I saw seemed outsized for this small landlocked country that is not much bigger than the state of Maryland.
I did not know at the time that it would be more than 20 years before I would return to Rwanda, or that in the intervening years, this country would be the site of a human tragedy of a magnitude almost too great to fathom. My next visit to Rwanda was just this past February, a couple of months shy of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, when I spent a packed two days leading an OPIC delegation to engage current and potential investors, explore with the government the ways OPIC might support additional investment, and visit some of the projects OPIC supports in the country.
But Rwanda now is very much a forward looking place, recognized in international business circles for its comparatively welcoming business climate that has attracted entrepreneurs and foreign investors. In its most recent Doing Business report, the World Bank ranks Rwanda 32nd out of 189 countries for Ease of Doing Business, above a number of far more developed countries from France to South Africa. One government official I met with described Rwanda as “a country in a hurry” and all of the country’s senior officials from tourism to trade to energy and transportation are clearly focused sustaining and building on the momentum of recent years.
I’ve traveled extensively throughout Africa and all of the developed world, yet I was sincere when I told the group of senior ministry officials in Rwanda that I’d never seen such a level of clarity and focus among government leaders on what actions are needed to achieve progress.
It is important to keep in mind that for all the recent progress, more work and investment is needed. While the country has in recent years enjoyed strong economic growth rates, Rwanda remains – like much of Sub-Saharan Africa — a very low income country where access to electricity is severely limited and nearly half of all households experience food insecurity. Having successfully attracted investors to Rwanda, the country now needs to focus on “investor aftercare,” that is, working to help investors succeed so that they stay in the country and help illustrate the opportunities Rwanda offers. It is not falsehood that happy investors breed happy investors.
As I visited some of the projects that OPIC supports in the region, I was gratified to see how our investments in businesses such as Forestry and Agricultural Investment Management (FAIM) were having a tangible positive impact. FAIM, started by an American horticulturist, is working to address food insecurity by growing healthier plants that produce higher yields. And his nursery, located just outside of Kigali, supports about 60 local jobs.
The OPIC-supported FAIM farm supports local jobs and enhanced agricultural yields.
The OPIC delegation also met with Rwanda Trading Company, an OPIC client that is working to modernize the company’s coffee sector, and help connect local farmers with export markets.
OPIC has a long history in Rwanda and in addition to coffee, has supported the local tea industry. In the 1970s, the Agency provided political risk insurance to an American tea business to support construction of the
Sorwathe tea processing facility, and during the civil war in the early 1990s, the Agency paid insurance claims that helped this facility resume production. In addition to operating an expansive tea plantation and processing facility, Sorwathe also purchases tea leaves from thousands of small landholders, helping to generate an important source of cash income for the local population.
While many of the projects OPIC has supported to date in Rwanda are in agriculture, there is great need for additional private sector investment in other sectors from infrastructure and tourism, to small business lending and energy. OPIC will continue to play a key role in supporting highly developmental projects that will address some of the biggest challenges in Rwanda, a country that has already achieved so much in such a short time. I am sure that great progress will again take place over the next 20 years in Rwanda; my only hope is that I can make it back sooner in between this time.