Underwritten by President Paul Kagame and adopted by Rwanda Parliament in 2008, the Kigali Conceptual Master Plan is an overarching guide for transforming Rwanda’s capital into a regional financial, business and entertainment centre for East Central Africa

Words by Killian Doherty | 28 Jun, 2013

The nebulous businessman, backpacking flâneur, ecumenical humanitarian and inquisitive academic is invariably surprised by Rwanda, a country eviscerated by ethnic conflict in 1994. The central African state appears to be nothing short of idyllic and utopian, in particular its re-emerging capital, Kigali, which is increasingly becoming a city of pristine roads, manicured footpaths and crystalline high-rises. Dubbed the “Switzerland of Africa”, frenzy around the implementation of the 2020 Kigali Conceptual Master Plan (KCM) has also earned the city another nickname, “Africa’s Singapore”.

In 2010 the World Bank ranked Rwanda as the 45th easiest place to do business, a canny, yet wavering, statistic rolled out to indicate economic prosperity. The Economist claims Rwanda to be “free of red tape”. While it is extremely easy to open up a business in Rwanda, with self-styled “one-stop” centre’s boasting a 24-hour turnaround, Rwanda’s strong centralised government and inherent lack of professional capacity has meant that processes move at an almost glacial pace. Businesses may well be registered overnight, but it can take months for them to be operational. The KCM is the urban vision for the capital, with lofty promises of prosperity for Rwanda, but it seems to be suffering from a similar disjuncture arising from its intentions and implementation, which sit at odds with the realities of its very own context.

The planning adjunct to the local development programme for Rwanda, the KCM was formulated by Oz Architects and developed by Surbana, an urban planning consortium based in Singapore. The KCM opts for a decentralized city plan, to counter urban growth, with satellite towns and rapid transit networks linking to the newly transformed CBD. The enforced urban transformation from a historically provincial city into a financial gateway for East Africa reveals visibly jarring inconsistencies.

Ascending the widened Boulevard L’Oua towards Kigali’s new centre, spines of spear-like streetlights, asphalt edges hemmed with LED cat’s eyes and variations on the same reflectively glazed high-rise office blocks have emerged. The junction of the newly named KN-40th Avenue and Boulevard L’Oua was once the entrance to “Poor Kiyovu”, a former low-income neighbourhood in central Kigali. Referred to as a “heritage residential neighbourhood” by the Rwanda Development Board, it was re-zoned to make way for these new developments. New Kiyovu, as I call it, is a shadow of its former, convivial self. Identical twin buildings watch over a vacant terrain of darkened roads and carved up land parcels; strip lighting from within these buildings reveals security guards as their only inhabitants. “Get a piece of Kigali,” reads a large billboard hoarding outside of one. Recently, the $100sq/m cost for the real-life equivalent of the airbrushed computer visualisation was cut by 50%.

Most of Kigali’s new high-rise developments—or “statement towers” in the language of the KCM—are sparsely occupied, housing a handful of businesses and several government agencies. What these high-rises have in common are their Chinese benefactors. The China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation and New Century Developments have jointly constructed and financed, most of Kigali’s simulated skyline, with a five-star hotel, new city hall and railway connection to Tanzania yet to come.

Rwanda is a country of constraints: its landlocked geography, challenging physical terrain, lack of a professional class and high rates of poverty fundamentally limits the vision of its ambitious master plan. Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa with a population of 10.6 million at approximately 430 people per sq/km. It is estimated that 80% of Rwandans live on less than $1 per day, and 95% of the population are “seriously deprived”, according to a 2012 Bertelsmann Stiftung report. The country is still predominantly rural (80%), a statistic matched by a burgeoning issue of land scarcity. With much of the country’s returning diaspora unable to find rural land, they are now re-settling in Kigali, whose population of 1.22 million is set to triple by 2040.

Kigali’s urban poor predominantly live in informal housing, with little or no access to water or electricity. Close to 450,000 housing units are needed within Kigali to meet current demands. Informal dwellings outstrip formal supply by a ratio of 3:1. The formal housing market is piecemeal, with forced evictions often taking place without replacement housing. Further underscoring this housing deficit, Rwanda, unlike Singapore, lacks major infrastructural air and sea connectivity; it is heavily reliant on importation. Building materials come by road taking several weeks, sometime months, to arrive from ports such as Mombasa. Over a third (39%) of its oil-based products are imported, driving up the cost of building materials, which are subject to an 18% import tax. Costs of construction in Rwanda are at least one and a half times more expensive than in South Africa, if not more. The typical Rwandan family has four or more members. Based on current building costs of $600 per sq/m, a 76sq/m house in Kigali will cost $45,600, way above the average household income of US$1,163. Assuming a family has disposable income, they will be hard-pressed to find a qualified architect. Rwanda currently has just over a dozen architects—one for every 700,000 inhabitants, which is seven times that of South Africa, where the ratio is 1:10,600. The country’s professional incapacity is huge.

There are positives. Education is a priority: Rwanda has a 95% enrolment rate in its primary schools. More than half of its parliamentarians (56%) are female.

But these positives have little to do with the country’s forward-looking master plan. The current urban surgery remains utterly incongruous with the country’s developmental problems. It cannot be left to architects and urban planners to unravel this unwieldy puzzle. The constraints require an institutional binding agent of sorts, a master plan that properly addresses the multi-disciplinary and multi-faceted problems presented by Rwanda’s geographic, social and economic landscape. This master plan needs dovetail with Rwanda’s existing settlement patterns, which are centred on community practices of weaving, farming, aquaculture and local building practices.

Ironically, Kigali’s decentralised transformation plan relies on the will of a centralised and top-heavy government. While Kigali’s spotless streets and polished facades might elicit comparisons to Switzerland and Singapore, countries also known for their cleanliness, likeness alone cannot bolster an urban vision.

Killian Doherty is an architect and educator based in Kigali