Whose city? Kigali, population growth and prospects for Rwanda’s urban future

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This blog marks the beginning of our series that explores the state of the nation in Rwanda, twenty years on from the genocide of 1994. It explores the social, political and economic progress made and the challenges that remain. Tom Goodfellow starts us off by exploring an angle that is often missed in analyses of the country: the urban question. Tom is a Lecturer in the department of Town and Regional Planning, at the University of Sheffield. His research on Rwanda’s urban transition was recently published as part of a special issue in the Journal of East African Studies, which you can access for free during April and June. 

The future will be urban. So much about Rwanda’s path ahead is unknown, yet this seems certain. The shift towards a more urbanised society is already well underway – despite the fact it remains one of the world’s least urbanised countries, Rwanda has a significantly higher proportion of people in cities and towns than neighbouring Uganda and Burundi and its urban population soared from 385,000 in 1990 to almost 2.5 million today. That’s an increase of over five hundred percent. While the twenty years since the genocide have certainly not healed all of Rwanda’s countless scars and unimaginable traumas, it is a long time in terms of demographic change.

Despite this, amid the recent outpouring of commemorations, reflective analyses and sober assessments of the RPF’s achievements and failings, very little attention has been given to the question of Rwanda’s population dynamics. The impressive rates of economic growth, strides towards gender equality, dramatic reductions in child and maternal mortality have been applauded and scrutinized, and the tales of more or less successful reconciliation explored. The chorus of (often aggressive) criticism, meanwhile, has been respectfully muted during this month of commemoration.

The demographic question is a crucial one, ignored at its peril. Rwanda remains the most densely populated country on mainland Africa, by some considerable margin. Many have linked this density to the genocide itself, either through the prism of Malthusian ecological crisis or the kind of ‘anti-social capital’ that population density can germinate. Not only does the question of population pressure itself matter intensely for Rwanda’s future; so too does where that population clusters and what opportunities and threats this presents. With this in mind, the fact that Rwanda has recently experienced some of the fastest rates of urban growth in the world – ever – surely merits attention.

The movement of populations into urban areas matters for a whole range of reasons. It matters because it could help to reduce population density in the countryside, where improvements in agricultural yields are such an important concern in Rwanda. It matters because urban areas generally provide better opportunities for accessing education, health and other basic services at scale. It matters because cities are places of potential economic opportunity.

The word ‘potential’ is, however, crucial here. Urbanisation needs to be accompanied by increases in housing and jobs, and these are not a given. In their absence, urban populations will seek to house and occupy themselves in all sorts of ways, many of which lead to the kinds of activity that turn governments against them – and indeed against urbanisation in general. This anti-urban stance has been dominant across much of Africa, at least since the 1980s.

Rwanda’s rulers are different: they want to have their cake and eat it. No country ever developed without urbanising, and the RPF leadership knows this well; on one level, therefore, they welcome urbanisation, with one government minister even talking of the country’s future being 100% urban in the long term. Yet they also want to minimise the everyday manifestations of urbanism that are inevitable in a country still at such low levels of national income: informal housing, informal employment, and urban poverty itself. This is especially true in their approach to Kigali, where half of Rwanda’s urbanites currently live.

On this issue, it should be said, wanting to have your cake and eat it is better than simply eating it. Many of the rulers of neighbouring countries have tended to gobble up the resources that cities offer, trampling on the poor and the environment at the same time, with scant concern for the future. Like most elites, Rwanda’s surely seek to benefit from Kigali’s land and property market; but its leaders also strive for much more in the city, and this is commendable.

The government has a Master Plan for Kigali and it is extremely serious about it. This won’t have escaped the attention of anyone who knows the country, and the Plan is attracting considerable scepticism. The American and Singaporean designs are inevitably considered by many to be ‘fantasy’ in the Rwandan context. Attention grabbing though they are, however, it is not the computer-generated images of a glitzy futuristic skyline that are influencing Kigali’s development so much as the everyday realities of navigating the shifting rules and regulations embodied in the emergent institutional framework. This includes not only the Plan but a whole range of other laws and (sometimes informal) rules, which don’t yet always fit together well.

Amid the 20th anniversary commemorations, mundane headlines such as ‘Developers Decry Bureaucracy in Rwanda Land Offices’ slip by without attracting much interest. Yet they highlight a fundamental reality about today’s Kigali: despite Rwanda’s soaring position in the World Bank’s ‘doing business’ index, most things about acquiring and using urban land in Rwanda are fraught with difficulty. Addressing this isn’t just about ‘cutting red tape’: the messy reality of doing business in Kigali is a result of the post-conflict politics of land, high population density, concern among government functionaries about making the wrong decision, and the deep commitment to the Master Plan. There is no easy solution. If, however, this is putting off even investors who are pursuing ventures with the potential to make big profits (and there is some evidence that it is), then one has to wonder what the prospects are for businesses that are more socially-oriented, or for the construction of housing targeted at the unprofitable poor.

One of the key challenges Rwanda faces, therefore, is harnessing its urban transition to meet the needs of the whole society. Currently, the investment taking place in the city is overwhelmingly of the kind that benefits benefit upper- and (occasionally) middle-income residents, often displacing the poor in the process. Meanwhile, a weak property taxation regime allows the rich to build and rent out luxury houses with little benefit to wider society. These developments do little to further the aim of constructing an urban economy that can employ large numbers of the urban poor, or indeed house them. If the only option for the urban poor is to drift back into being rural poor, this would impede Rwanda’s progress. To stay true to its ambitions to become a middle income nation, more opportunities for urban upward mobility must be created.

Reflecting on twenty years, Rwandans can be proud of many things. Looking to future, they will also be only too aware of the challenges and potential stumbling blocks ahead. Among the problems knocking at their door are the huge shortfall in adequate housing for low-income city-dwellers, the absence of industrial or urban service sectors capable of absorbing large amounts of urban labour and, related to this, the growing and potentially dangerous perception that Kigali is an elite space with no place for ordinary citizens. The government needs to concertedly focus attention on addressing these issues, especially given its determination to limit informality in the city. Urban areas are where much of Rwanda’s future will be made, but currently the nation’s cities lack the basic ingredients. The ambitious and laudable aim of the government to embrace an urban future can only be realised if Kigali is more clearly envisaged as a city for all.

Read Tom’s article on Rwanda’s urban transition in the Special Issue of the Journal of East African Studies commemorating twenty years since the 1994 Rwanda genocide

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