Feature: How Rwanda is cleaning up in the events business

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I have travelled regularly to Southern and East Africa over the past 30-plus years and have experienced many of the wonders of the continent, writes Martin Lewis.
I find it intoxicating and endlessly surprising. But it is spoiled by garbage, which is everywhere. Plastic bags are ubiquitous and there is no culture for disposing of them. Except, that is, in Rwanda.
Kigali could easily be a mess, but President Paul Kagame had other ideas. He passed a law requiring every citizen to spend the last Saturday of every month cleaning up their immediate environment. The result is the cleanest country in Africa that I have visited.
Kagame is an interesting character with a colourful track record, to say the least. He returned a hero after the genocides of the 1970s and set about reinventing the country. He isn’t revered by everyone – not least because his critics claim some of his political opponents have a habit of coming to a sticky end – but he has turned this nation from a basket case into one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies.
Now Kigali is a modern city with a shiny new convention centre and foreign investment aplenty. He set out to make it the easiest country in Africa in which to open a business and it is claimed you can open a bank account in any currency you choose within 24 hours.
The experienced and knowledgeable team of Rick and Colette Taylor from The Business Tourism Company were brought in to set up a convention bureau to market the city and the new centre. They spent five years training staff, getting the buy-in of politicians and devising strategy and the bureau is now run by a local team headed by Frank Murangwa. The results speak for themselves.
New business arrives
This year the city has hosted the Africa Fine Coffee and Exhibition 2019 with around 1,500 international delegates. This month the Africa CEO Forum brings together top CEOs from across Africa and Kigali also hosts the Africa Health Agenda International Conference. Later this year the city stages the Global Gender Summit and the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA), expected to receive between 7,000 and 9,000 delegates.

Nyungwe House, One&Only Nature Resorts.


The international hotel industry has responded in kind. The centre is managed by Radisson Hotels, which has a hotel adjoining the Kigali International Convention Centre. Marriott Hotel and Park Inn by Radisson are also open, providing a total of 5,500 rooms in Kigali in the three to five-star hotel bracket.
Now One&Only has relaunched Nyungwe House under its brand – the One&Only Nature Resorts portfolio. The expansion of One&Only’s Nature Resorts will continue this year with the opening of One&Only Gorilla’s Nest in northern Rwanda. This will be in the foothills of the Virunga volcano range, offering gorilla trekking in the Volcanoes National Park and complement One&Only Nyungwe House to provide “the ultimate luxury twin-centre experience.” For incentive groups, the combination would be sensational.
I stayed at Nyungwe House for my first visit to the country, before One&Only began operating it last October. It is on the edge of the Nyungwe rainforest in the dramatic mountainous landscapes of Rwanda’s southwest and set within a working tea plantation. Because of its altitude, it is cool and temperate with little to scare first-time visitors to Africa. The primates are the country’s major attraction with monkeys and chimpanzees in addition to the gorillas at a higher altitude.
Later this year Singita Kwitonda Lodge as well as Wilderness Safari – Magashi Camp will open as the country restocks its national parks to become a serious player in the safari business. You can already see lions and leopards as well as antelopes and Lake Ihema has one of the largest concentrations of hippos in East Africa.
Rwanda was the setting for the most recent Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE) Executive Summit. This annual event takes members of the SITE Board of Directors and SITE Foundation Board of Trustees to new and emerging destinations that can leverage the experience and knowledge of global industry leaders to grow its incentive travel business. The event, sponsored by Rwanda Convention Bureau and its partners, was also made possible through a grant from the SITE Foundation. A high level delegation spent five days in the country concluding that “Rwanda is incentive ready”.
The SITE delegation also visited key regions in the country where incentive travel products and services are being developed – Nyungwe Forest National Park and Volcanoes National Park – staying at the recently opened One&Only Nyungwe House and experiencing a thrilling, early morning gorilla trek.
Recovering from political instability
SITE’s 2018 president Annamaria Ruffini says, “Since the tragic events of the 90s, Rwanda has recovered remarkably and is fast becoming a leading light for women in leadership and sustainability – themes that have been key to my year as SITE president. I’m thrilled to see how the business events sector in Rwanda is being led by young women pursuing a vision for the country as a sustainable tourism destination powered by meetings and incentive travel experiences.”
High level discussions were held with senior government officials including Clare Akamanzi, CEO and Belise Kariza, chief tourism officer of the Rwanda Development Board; and Nelly Mukazayire, CEO and Frank Murangwa, director of MICE destination marketing of the Rwanda Convention Bureau.
SITE CEO Didier Scaillet added that the local leadership was committed to incentive travel. “Our five days in Rwanda have left us in no doubt as to the country’s credentials as an incentive travel destination.”
New destinations find it hard to make a dent in a crowded marketplace, said Rajeev Kohli from Creative Travel India. “What I found unique about Rwanda was its story. From its history of the genocide, its wildlife experiences, very friendly people and its modern outlook and progressive take on women’s empowerment, all intertwined to make a very engaging, cool and thought provoking visit. It may not be a product for every market, but for its capacity and style, it is most certainly is ready to be put out there before clients as a unique and multifaceted incentive destination.”
Carina Bauer, CEO of the IMEX Group, was impressed by how Rwanda has had to totally rebuild itself over the past 20 years. “Both businesses and other countries can learn a lot from this small nation.”
James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.

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