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Ask any expert on East Africa about the region, and they’ll tell you – Rwanda has come a long way. One of the worst African tragedies of the 1990s, a decade that held no shortage of tragedies for the continent, played out in Rwanda. The country had almost been written off as a victim of civil war by foreign observers until the 2000s and Paul Kagame’s presidency.
Despite being accused of irregularities with the democratic process, Mr. Kagame has proven to be a positive force for Rwandan economic development. The Vision 2020 development plans developed by his government have helped drive Rwanda’s use of new technologies and turned Kigali’s stock exchange into one of the most vital in the EAC, and potentially become the pillar of an integrated East African stock exchange network. The most tangible aspect of Rwanda’s development, however, remains Kigali’s urban development.
The planning is massive. Looking at the architects’ sketches and blueprints, Kigali’s new look is set to be even more ambitious than other African capital projects such as Lomé or Abidjan. Skyscrapers are the mainstay of the new business districts, satellite towns and natural preserves. Business districts are planned to attract foreign investment and housing districts would flourish in various areas.
One of the toughest challenges faced by architects and urban planners is going to be housing. Up to 70% of Kigali’s traditional housing is set to be destroyed to create high-density area. The question then, is one that’s been heard in urban renewal programs around the world: Where do we house the working class?
Vision 2020 includes a clear goal of poverty reduction. As the rural poor flow into the city in ever-increasing numbers in search of opportunity, affordable housing will have to be part of that goal. Otherwise, Kigali is set to go the way of Nairobi and its vast urban slum, Kibera. Quotas are to be imposed for nonexpensive housing and the plans dictate that hopeful migrants should have the option to lease their home, becoming homeowner 10 years down the line in exchange for a rental in the immediate term.
Opponents of the redevelopment of Kigali claim that the planning is designed to serve wealthy business interests, linked with elite RPF leaders. They point to the fact that affordable housing will not be sufficient to house the densely-packed Kigali working class, which is constantly being supplemented with immigrants from the countryside. They add that the objectives set – 1,000 new homes in 2015, 7,000 planned that year – are not ambitious enough and should take more precedence over the business districts and other buildings. However, the Vision 2020 objectives – 560,000 new homes built in 2020 – are considered on track. With Rwanda being relatively free of corruption – especially compared to its neighbouring countries – international observers remain optimistic about Kigali’s potential to become a worthy capital for a middle-income country.