Rwanda has the resources, leadership and determination to change global misconceptions of Africa’s current and future capacity for highly lucrative regional business, trade and industry, asserts Benjamin Gasamagera, Chairman of Rwanda’s Private Sector Federation and Managing Director of start-up incubator Safari Center. He discusses with The Worldfolio the importance of regional integration and determination from leaders and the public alike in Africa to adding value to its wealth of resources, and Rwanda’s potential to change misguided global mindsets through putting words into action.
Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF said that three of Africa’s biggest challenges were to build people, build infrastructure and build institutions. How would you assess Africa’s work to build its institutions and what challenges still lay ahead?
In order to build institutions in Africa, we must first build the people. An institution can only be as good as the people who are part of it. A lot has already been done in order to build institutions, but what about the people themselves? If the population isn’t educated, institutions will never be valued nor regarded.
In Africa, governing organizations have a chronic history of deceiving the population, hence this devaluation of governance. So by investing in our people, we will teach them how to improve our institutional bodies and they will naturally expect more from them; it is the road to success. We must make people believe in the value of cross-sectorial foundations.
If you look at the size of Africa, Rwanda is but a drop in the sea in terms of space. However, this country’s commitment to improve its society can create a ripple effect throughout the continent. Making the people believe in the power of organizations is a key factor to success.
Africa’s largest untapped market and its biggest opportunity for progress is right on its doorstep. In 2014, 69% of exports in Europe were to other countries on the continent. In Asia, that figure stood at 52%, and in North America at 50%. Africa had the lowest level of intra-regional trade, at just 18%. As Chairman of the Private Sector Federation, what is your assessment of the efforts undertaken to increase regional integration?
The private sector in Africa has always pushed for regional integration, because trade has no boundaries. If the private sector were to be integrated across countries in a similar manner as the public sector, its drive would be much stronger. By reducing trade barriers and enhancing cross-border businesses, Africa will pave the way for its private companies to take the lead in terms of integration. Our continent has an abundance of resources and opportunities.
What needs to be done now is to install this regional business spirit into people’s minds. Africans believe to share a common story and a common culture; the borders that separate us are artificial. To a large extent, colonial history is the main reason for what separated us. This led to some of our countries trading with other continents much more than with neighboring states, a pity!
However, the good leadership that recently blossomed in East Africa has motivated the private sector to succeed. By creating a positive business environment, our governments have improved the private sector’s growth.
In Rwanda, we now heavily rely on neighboring countries for exports and imports. The efforts of our presidents to communicate with each other is a huge commitment and a real difference maker. It showcases that our leaders are keen to cooperate.
The next challenge is therefore to enforce this commitment from the top to the bottom of the social pyramid. While our governing bodies are dedicated to working together, the main discrepancies between our nations happen in the field. Therefore, we must enforce this collaborative vision to the population as a whole. To do so, the private sector has become an integral part of the ruling clusters. This commitment encourages workers to follow the power’s guidelines. This collaboration allows us to monitor information while providing us with a clear vision as to what opportunities are emerging.
Another key priority for the continent is industrialization. In a recent interview with The Worldfolio, Dennis Karera, Chairman of the East African Business Council, revealed that about 70% of the goods consumed in the region were imported from Western countries. What are the efforts by Rwanda to enhance this industrialization process, and what is the role of Safari Center?
When I started this company, my dream was to see the entire country devoted to technical solutions. The experience I acquired when working in China and Europe allowed me to have a clear image as to what we lack in Africa: the study of things.
When I left Rwanda, I used to believe that factories were sophisticated machines that demanded incredible technological training and a massive amount of capital; it looked reserved to the mighty expatriates. However, when working in China, I learnt that it wasn’t the case. To set up a factory, a proper organization of the value chain is the only requirement to succeed, it is a model that is replicable everywhere.
As a producer of raw products over transformed goods, Africa is clearly missing on an essential opportunity to bolster its economy. We must develop our production industry into a transformative one! In all honesty, for a continent that has such an abundance of natural resources, the latter is more than a realistic goal. What we need to do is to collectively re-master our value chain. We need to collaboratively re-think our production of goods and services by easing cross-national regulations. We must rely on each other to trade raw resources and transformative solutions. Unity is the way to go!
The answer to our problems is to convince the population that continental collaboration is the way forward. By enforcing this vision, African workers will become aware of this reality, fostering investment and corporate profit.
Your company is a business incubator and provides logistical trading services. Can you tell us more about what your company has to offer?
We offer the possibility to industrialize and upscale one’s company. We provide management solutions and technological know-how. My ambition is to show to my country that, from whatever business scale one starts from, industrialization is possible. I want to spread that belief. I want to empower small and medium enterprises to believe in their industrial potential. To foster private sector investment, we need to enhance our company’s production outputs. As the Chairman of the Private Sector Federation, I am a firm believer in the potential of our companies. My job is to open people’s eyes by making them embrace this approach.
Another service we provide is international exposure. We offer the confidence and business tools needed to compete on the world stage. We work closely with our clients to provide tailor-made services aimed at enhancing their global attractiveness. To do so, we provide a service-oriented platform that pulls operational resources from a long-established and enriched pooling network.
After the US Secretary for Commerce’s visit this January, the US stated that Rwanda is a strategic ally to enhance trade in the region. However, US business interest in Rwanda is very low compared to its peers in the region. What opportunities would you like to highlight to our American readers?
The opportunities in this country are immense for American businessmen. First and foremost, Rwanda’s geographical position is highly strategic. We are positioned as the gateway for the East African region, a region that is currently experiencing the highest continental growth.
Africa’s lack of industrialization has led to the misfortunate perception of being looked upon as a group of countries able to provide raw materials only, and this doesn’t make sense. From a worldwide point of view, a rich country is a country that has abundant raw resources. However, many developed states are extremely poor in natural outputs. So when it comes to Africa, this perception is indisputably reversed! We are deemed as poor countries even though we have an extravagant amount of raw materials. And unfortunately, we, as Africans, have accepted this vision.
So what I want to highlight, is that Rwanda has the means to foster our economies by becoming a transformative and tactical platform to operate from. Rwanda has the means to change this misperception. From ICT to tourism, opportunities are here to be taken; but to create an attractive investment environment, we must rely on cross-border cooperation.
The USA has the capital and the know-how to enhance our multi-sector activities. Our main focus is therefore to showcase the uprising that is happening here. If America doesn’t come, we will start looking for a plan B. However, attracting the USA is definitely our priority.
What did you gain from your life-long international exposure?
When I was in China in the 90’s, I learnt that it is possible to mix strict business practices with emotional affectivity. This country stayed true to its culture while also abiding to high professional standards. China was also the first one in the region to make efforts to attract FDI, they literally rolled the red carpet for foreign investment to come in.
In a past interview, you said that you were an admirer of Deng Xiaoping for his transformative policies. How would like to see Rwanda transform in the upcoming years?
Rwanda is already transformed. In the upcoming years, I would like to see Rwanda maintain its transformative pace. Development and socioeconomic transformation are well on their way.
What we need next is to create a large pool of believers as to the potential of the country and of the region. We have come a very long way from where we were 20 years ago. However, we must continue our efforts.
Talking about Deng Xioping, he governed China with an iron hand and a business-oriented vision. Despite their diverging models, China and Rwanda have points of similitude. Like China, we rose from the ashes of war. Like China, our leader has taken brave decisions in order to set a positive future for the country.
Our President is strong, committed and a visionary. He has set up an excellent business environment for the private sector to thrive in. Personally, I consider myself gifted to have enjoyed this excellent presidency. This type of leadership is what Africa needs; this type of leadership creates believers. Walking the talk is the key in order to prove to the population that its contribution is needed and appreciated. A strong and committed government empowers people to believe in themselves, and when you make people feel empowered, they will give you back the gift you granted to them.