Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Pouring concrete

A visit to one of our micro-hydro plant building sites. On days like this I love my job. These are project profit-driven private sector companies with restricted support from us. They are employing dozens of locals, developing spin-off businesses, will provide cheap electricity and are already looking for the next possible power plants. This is sustainable development. No community-owned plant with financial management issues, buraucracy and misguided ideas about the public good.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Financial mess real reason Umuseso had to close down

On the 23, October, 2007, Rwanda Independent Media Group (Rimeg) suspended its publications indefinitely.

The evil Rimeg published the only government-critical newspapers in Rwanda : Umuseso and Newsline. Such anti-government trash papers only reinforce my unliberal views that many of you know me for, and lead me to consider even harsher controls on the press. For example, I fully support a recent government request to all government officials to cease placing advertising in the Umuseso. This is a great way to punish those evil journalists, because government advertising makes up a huge part of newspaper revenues in Rwanda.

The patriotic Focus newspaper today said:

"...Rimeg ceased publishing their newspapers because they felt intimidated by the government... . There are those who were taken in by the claims ... such as some gullible members of the public who only ever read the generally spurious content of Umuseso or Newsline .... And of course there are those who are always ready to believe the Umuseso gentlemen because that is what they prefer to do - an example being international media rights organisations such as Reporters Without Borders.
I asked myself, does the [Rimeg reporter's] highly inflated sense of self-importance - no doubt grown from all those years of adulation from international media and human rights groups, diplomats in Kigali and some local readers of his publications - now make him imagine the Head of State is desperate to silence him ... ?" (Quoted from the front page article of today's Focus newspaper.)

Today I add to my personal "Axis of Evil" the following: Reporters Without Borders, international media, human rights groups and Kigali diplomats.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The war we are losing

I live an amazing life. I wake up every morning with the feeling that it actually matters whether I go into work or not. I work with people from very different backgrounds. And I work on the front of an economy and country going through radical changes. Sure, there are days when I would rather stay in bed, but there is a clear underlying feeling that I am not just a small cog in the machinery. And I love living in Africa. Every day I take a few seconds to stand on my terrace and look at the rolling hills of Kigali city. Every driving through the lush green countryside overgrown with banana trees and overrun with children makes me feel like I am in the middle of life. The extreme poverty and shocking equality are always present, but they are also a part of what makes this world more real than the comparatively wealthy comfort of Europe. It is living at the front of the last great battle against poverty, corruption, lies, self-serving arrogance and overpaid consultants. It is also a battle that we are losing because of our inadequacy and our arrogance: Africa is not emerging from poverty. The current style of development assistance destroys local markets and encourages Africans to become more and more dependant on foreign aid handouts.
But this can’t last. The naive hope of the Live8 generation that “more aid is all we need” will slowly fade. The failures of the aid industry are becoming more obvious and more difficult to hide. And it is unfortunate, because aid is not bad per se. For me, there are still brilliant people and great organisations doing amazing work in Africa. The methods of the aid industry simply need to change, and people back in “the developed world” need to begin to understand the change that is needed, in order to start lobbying for it. For example:
  • Don’t give anything for free. Used clothes from Germany destroy the local textiles market, free American vegetable oil competes with local farmers, free solar power modules put local traders out of business and free money goes to the corrupt and lazy. When you give things for free, you destroy local businesses and livelihoods.
  • Use the private sector, even if it means that projects are more difficult. Use local construction companies, hire local companies to implement projects, create joint ventures and public-private partnership, encourage an entrepreneurial mentality. Find ways to deal with the cheats, con-artists and dubious businessmen that leach off donors.
  • Stop using cash flow as a way of measuring aid agencies’ performance. Almost all aid agencies have “spending targets” as a way of measuring their “success” in their country programmes. In the aid industry, if you’re not spending, you’re not working. This encourages reckless spending and bizarre behaviour. At the end of the fiscal year for example, many donors will start spending huge amounts of money on products and consultants with little overall strategy.

So the question is, is it worth continuing with the development aid industry?

Yes. If simply because it is better to try and fail than to give up and leave Africa in poverty indefinitely.

But not at any cost. Africa doesn't need more money. And Africa doesn't need more development initiatives from the developed world. We need to be more intelligent about the way in which we do aid. And maybe the best way to do that, is to take a step back and start again with smaller, but carefully monitored projects.

I realise of course that this might mean that less money reaches Africa. But since at the moment, much of the money poured into Africa has a negative effect on the economy, this may just be a good thing.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Our extended office

This photo was taken at lake Muhazi a couple of months ago. It's about 1 hour's drive from Kigali. If you have to work on a Saturday, do it in style.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Development beyond criticism

A UNDP report says: "... Rwanda has achieved remarkable results in areas such the access to education, gender equality and democratic governance. ...
...the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) can still be achieved in Rwanda, even within reasonable assumptions about economic growth and development aid. However, achieving this will require us to break with the “business as usual” approach to development assistance, and create a mutually accountable partnership for human development. ...
...The report reveals that soaring inequality is threatening poverty reduction and economic growth. ..."

The Rwandan government's response to this constructive criticism is in a local newspaper article entitled, "Now Finance ministry probes staff over UNDP devt report ‘mistakes’." In which, "Days after he launched the 107-page report dubbed ‘‘Turning Vision 2020 into Reality: From Recovery to Sustainable Human Development’, the Cabinet asked [Minister of Finance and Economic Planning] Musoni to refute it."

In response, UNDP published a 5-page addendum. This addendum apologises for the tone of various sections of the report and the way the figures were represented.

But consider the resident UNDP representative's comment in an earlier press release: "The report constitutes a rigorous and objective piece of research, which takes a hard look at the facts, as they are, without trying to embellish them or tweak them to suite one or the other interest. This independence is key to the credibility of the analytical findings and the value of the report for strategic planning purposes".

I guess UNDP needs to sacrifice a little integrity to be able to continue to operate in a country like Rwanda.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The stone crusher with the pink hat

Rwandan fashion is a fusion of European clothes donations and an African love of bright colours.

These guys are crushing stones that they sell as construction material to one of our on-going micro-hydro projects here.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The problem with Africa's biggest solar power plant

I was at the inauguration of Africa’s biggest solar plant on the 6th July.

The work of the German companies Stadtwerke Mainz, Juwi and my friend Jutta in completing this plant is impressive. With 250kW it may be small compared to conventional power plants, but huge for solar power. This project broke new ground in Rwanda.

The press was unquestioningly positive.

Unfortunately, I think this project is misguided for a couple of reasons:
  • This is a large grid-connected plant. The future of solar energy in Rwanda is small household systems. This project demonstrates how not to do solar projects in Rwanda. The 250kW contribution to the grid of about 50 000kW is minimal. If the 250kW had instead been installed as 2500 household systems, the impact would have been much larger.
  • The plant was built entirely by German companies with German financing. The amount of technology and skills transfer is minimal.
  • The plant is a donation that makes no commercial sense. It demonstrates the technical possibilities of solar power, but not its economic viability. It is the economic viability that will decide about the future of solar energy in Rwanda.
  • Such non-commercial projects destroy local markets by suppressing prices to artificially low levels. Commercial energy projects in all sectors are being held back by unrealistically low cost expectations in the country.
I hope that future projects in Rwanda are better designed to develop the Rwandan private sector. Only if Rwandans themselves learn how to develop projects and commercial ventures can this country develop out of poverty.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Why muzungu prices are good

In Rwanda, as in much of Africa, foreigners experience what can perhaps be described as racial pricing. Bazungu (white people/plural of Muzungu) pay more than Rwandans or black Africans for the same products and services. It is occasionally possible to negotiate a Rwandan price, but often a local will simply refuse to sell. And this is not simply a question of the bad negotiation skills of the bazungu: prices asked have become standardised into “Rwandan” and “Muzungu” prices:

This practice infuriates most bazungu in Rwanda, who will generally try to negotiate the seller down to the Rwandan price. But should we be so annoyed?

We do it aswell.

In Europe, a plane ticket for a business traveller on a intra-European flight may cost for example 800 Euros. A private but wealthy traveller who plans a private visit and researches a few cheaper offers may pay 600 Euros for the same flight. A slightly less wealthy tourist, who plans his holiday well in advance, may get the same flight for 400 Euros from the same major airline. Also, airlines offer “student discounts”, “pensioner discounts” and special offers for tour operators that could get that price down to 250 Euros.

This is price differentiation in Europe and it is found not only amongst the airlines, but also amongst other services (cinema tickets, train tickets, …) and even products (a book in a student bookshop costs less than at a gift shop in the centre of town). It is an intelligent way of getting different types of customers to pay the optimum price in order to maximise turnover.

So what about the bazungu?

In a sense, African businessmen, traders and taxi drivers have instinctively understood a mechanism that is part of every economic and business course in Europe. To get the most money out of your customers, you try to separate them into groups of rich and poor, and then charge them different prices. This is simply good business sense. It also allows businesses to charge lower prices to those people who might otherwise be too poor to buy a product or service.

Not to mention all the damage that we bazungu do to the local economy…

… because we push up local prices. This is most obvious in the rent prices in Kigali, which are on a level with Paris or London. But bazungu also increase the demand for food, imported goods, petrol and so on. If a Rwandan trader had to set the same price for everyone, the prices would rise as the expatriates move in and go shopping. This rise in prices would make the survival of poor Rwandans even harder.

So if you are ever in Africa, pay your bazungu prices with a smile and hope that you are always paying more than the locals. This is not only better for business, but also better for the poor.

(lower income market segment)

(upper income market segment)

Friday, April 27, 2007


At some point in 2006 I seem to have lost the ability to become bored. I am able to sit in a quiet place and just be satisfied doing absolutely nothing except watch the world go by. Every moment without worrying about to visas, e-mails, tax declarations, meetings, flight schedules and contracts, is bliss. I went to Zanzibar hoping to rediscover my ability to get bored. I didn’t find it. Instead I found a beautiful island floating in warm Indian Ocean with a mazelike old town, idyllic beaches and great people to keep me company.

Life is good.

On a completely different subject, if anyone wants to do micro-hydro power projects in Rwanda… ;) … this might interest you.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


I haven't posted in a while. This is partly because of a battle with a computer virus that managed to destroy my harddrive twice before I won. But now that crisis is over...

On a completely different subject: Over time I have added and removed several links in the sidebar of this blog. Just to explain some of them...

- Farhad Cooper's LiveJournal - Although this guy hasn't updated his journal in ages, he had one of the most interesting starts to his career that I have ever heard of. A former engineering student at Imperial (like me), he then went on to study medicine and traveled/worked in Ghana, the Caucasus and the States before settling back in the UK. His archives from 2005 are pretty interesting reading.
- My Little Univierse - This is my sister's blog. She is doing a masters in Film in Utrecht and is also starting up a film production company.
- Baked Beans on Toast - The blog of David: my roommate at university. A rather odd mathematician, who has settle down to a peaceful family life in the UK. :)
- Cognition - Stephen's site: a renewable energy brother-in-arms in South Africa. One of the things I appreciated most working in the renewable energy sector in South Africa is the energy and creativity of the private sector in a difficult political environment.
- Rwandatales - Aoife: someone who has been in Rwanda too long and is far too sane for development assistance work. If you don't become cynical working in development assistance, then you're probably just naive.
- Vom Wind Getragen - A cyclist who has been on the road in Africa for about a year. He stayed at our house on his way from Kampala to the Congo.
- Jared's blog - An interesting guy, relatively new to Rwanda, who has started up an NGO that supports former prostitutes.

And to finish this post, a picture that has very little to do with anything at all. This is my windows wallpaper: Wenchi Crater in Ethiopia, where I was in January.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Singapore of Central Africa?

On a development blog NextBillion, there were recently a couple of articles on Rwanda. 2 that I left comments on are "Toward Rwanda" about the ambition of developing Rwanda as the "Singapore of Central Africa" and another article about the prioritisation of electricity.