28 January 2013

Rwanda: Purpose and Opportunity


A few days ago, I sat down to dinner with brilliant young people. Some owned successful businesses, others managed huge projects, others had written books and others were social media legends. None were over 30. While we ate, we talked about our individual aspirations and upcoming projects and I felt this profound sense of gratefulness.

Why gratefulness? Well, it is not many places in the world that inspire young people to dream and go for their dreams. Rwanda doesn't have the mineral wealth or even the privilege of having gone through the normal process of democratisation and industrialisation. We went from being some unknown country to being pushed into the spotlight for the wrong reasons.

The genocide, while almost 19 years ago, is a third degree burn that although slowly scarring will always be visible. It really would have been easier for all Rwandans, starting with the government, to sink into this never ending spiral of hatred and mediocrity. We could have been eternal victims, and given how the West prefers that to performers, it would have been easier. I'm glad we chose the hard path.

Let's be honest, we still have huge challenges. There is the energy question that has no microwave type answer. There is the need to increase investment to accelerate the transfer to a knowledge based service economy. There is the challenge of growing the private sector. There is the urgent need of skilled labour. Local media has to go from crawling to running. Yes, the challenges can be mind numbing but what is certain, we can and will face the challenges head on. Like President Kagame reminds us often, what choice do we have in any case?

Don't get me wrong, we have done some pretty amazing things. In fact, the good really does outshine the bad. There are so many successful government led and people empowered projects that have changed the lives of ordinary Rwandans, we have reason to be proud.

Yesterday, I heard of a man in Eastern Province who bought a plot of land and planted all sorts of fruits. After selling his first harvest, he bought more land. After a while of buying land and planting more fruits, he started building houses on his land. Now keep in mind, this man's business was selling organic fruit to local markets. Today, not only is he a very successful businessman who employs many, he owns several houses.

That story led me to think about the role of government in this anti-government, occupy Wall Street world we live in. My take is that the government's job is to provide basic infrastructure and an enabling environment for people, civil society and private business to flourish. It's a never ending process but one that starts with the premise of empowering regular citizens.

The other day, I asked the Minister of Youth and ICT if he didn't find it a little time consuming to have regular citizens calling him up to report slow connections given his other responsibilities. In Canada, where I lived for more than 10 years, you could never speak to the Minister directly unless they had planned it. Minister Nsengimina's answer was refreshing, "Most people don't call for petty things. They call because they need your assistance in matters that directly affect them. There is a need. My job and members of my staff's job is to respond to that need."

Forget what you read in foreign media, this is the real Rwandan story; a government that responds to the needs of citizens and citizens who are empowered to innovate and give back to their local community in the process.

I am grateful to be part of a country that empowers young people. A few decades ago, one waited to grow old to become someone. The Rwanda we live in today says, "Be what you want to be starting now". Challenging yes, impossible no!

As a young people, we should be asking how we can fill the existing gaps. Can you paint? Are you good with numbers? Are you a linguist? A people person? Are you good at fixing things? Can you swim? Can you write? Can you cook? Can you write code in your sleep? An amateur scientist? Can you motivate others? Are you good with children? Think outside the box! Every talent, with practice and opportunity is a cash cow.

Maybe you're thinking, "I don't have a particular talent". Here's a thought: be the solution to a need in your local community. Take initiative. Get noticed for the right reasons. We don't all need to be millionaires at age 30. What we need is to be remembered for doing something for others. Do it on purpose. Start today.

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