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Rwanda: Keeping up with Kigali

By Oheneba Ama Nti Osei
Posted on Monday, 19 November 2018 15:07, updated on Thursday, 21 March 2019 11:42

Kigali business district, Rwanda, May 2017. Vincent Fournier/JA

The capital city wants to plan its way to sustainable growth, but citizens and developers say their concerns have not yet been taken into account

Visit the gleaming Kigali Convention Centre and its perfectly manicured environs, and you might say Rwanda’s capital – home to about 1.3 million people – is one of the greenest and cleanest in Africa.

But for those who live there, the reputation can sometimes come with a heavy price tag. In 2013, the government launched the ambitious Kigali City Master Plan to guide the city’s urban development, and residents have been divided on how the plan is serving the needs of the growing population.

Christopher Kayumba, a professor at the University of Rwanda, says the government’s aim of rapidly transforming the city into a modern capital is often achieved at the expense of infrastructure tailored to the needs of the population.

For example, the busy and lively Centenary House-Ecole Belge Street in the heart of the Kigali business district was designated a car-free zone in August 2015. “When you travel in Europe and North America, you find a number of car-free zones,” says Kayumba, who suggests the policy was dreamt up by a Kigali official after visiting one of these zones, “without considering the conditions that are unique to the businesses in Kigali, that reflect our purchasing power and that reflect our level of development.”

Ghost town

The push to make the city less dependent on cars – which includes other green initiatives such as ‘walk-through’ neighbourhoods – is all part of the government’s plans to cater for a population set to grow to 3.8 million by 2040, and to build a reputation for sustainable and green growth.

the car-free project has come under intense criticism from residents and local business owners who say the once-bustling area is now a ghost town

But the car-free project has come under intense criticism from residents and local business owners who say the once-bustling area is now a ghost town. Kayumba says the Kigali authorities should have engaged the owners of buildings in that area to include facilities and services that would attract people to the area. “For example, eateries, cinemas, shopping malls and things that will attract children and families,” he says.

Source: City of Kigali, Rwanda

Consult before building

Natalie Campbell Rodrigues, owner and managing director of Forrest Jackson Properties, a real-­estate company, concurs about the problems with planning: “The master plan may suggest a developer use a lot they own to build a residential unit of ground plus 2 [ground floor plus two additional floors], but the market is not asking for that.”

She says consulting with developers more “could lead to a reduction in the number of developers who build and then cannot sell the finished product.” Reports show that as of mid-April 2018, only 142 of the 502 units in a high-end housing estate, Vision City, had been sold, despite the 30% reduction in unit price in July last year.

Completed in 2017 and built in line with the 2013 master plan, the multi-phase project has been excessively priced – between $179,000 and $560,000 per unit – in a country with a per capita income of around $750. On the other end of the spectrum, the master plan has the goal of removing all slums by 2040, but that means relocating thousands of people.

Families from the Kangondo slum have complained that they are being relocated to less desirable areas far away from essential services. In July, the city announced its intention to review and update the master plan.

Fred Mugisha, the director of Kigali Urban Planning and Construction One Stop Centre, says ideas for the updated master plan will be taken from the grassroots community. The review process started in June and will last for 10 months.

The driving force behind the city planning project is Singapore-based infrastructure consulting firm Surbana Jurong (SJ). In April this year, the company, which currently operates in 22 countries in Africa, inked another deal with the city authorities to review and update the master plans of Kigali’s three districts.

Nyarugenge, which contains most of the city’s businesses, is due to serve as a financial hub, Kicukiro as a knowledge hub and Gasabo, the largest in area, as the country’s administrative centre.

Philip Tan, SJ’s managing director and global lead for planning group, says the company has been engaging local communities and stakeholders to gather feedback on the 2013 master plan and any challenges they may have encountered.

“The data collection will comprise surveys of 3,600 households. Our aim is to gather information on socioeconomic forecasts, housing and commercial real-estate trends, preferences on transport and to have a better understanding of the traffic situation,” he says.

Source: City of Kigali, Rwanda

The University of Rwanda’s Kayumba says more needs to be done to sensitise and effectively engage communities so that they can feel part of the initiative. “Calling people in a meeting and giving them a document and saying ‘What do you think about this?’ without giving them enough time to reflect […]. No, I don’t think it offers a good chance to give good views,” he adds.

According to Kayumba, though residents were consulted over the car-free zone, the main decisions had already been made.

Vision and effectiveness

Campbell Rodrigues, a Jamaican citizen who has been living in Kigali for the past three years, says the responsibility lies with Kigali’s inhabitants: “The master plan is referred to so often in the media that I cannot see what more the government could do to sensitise the population. At some point, interested citizens need to take responsibility and seek information. It is readily available and accessible.”

She praises the plan for its vision and effectiveness in transforming the city. “It has proven to be an active working document through which citizenry and business can know what is to be expected in terms of city planning for the city. As it stands, the plan is easy to use and detailed,” she says. Overall, there is optimism that the plan can work to benefit all.

Kayumba says he thinks the country is on the right track: “If you see how things have started coming together, how the road network is built, when you see how skyscrapers have come up – I say there is a lot of progress”. All that remains is to ensure that the government’s objectives and the population’s needs are in alignment.

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