This article was written by Hugo Slimbrouck, our Director of Strategic Partners.
To me, Rwanda calls back stories told by my cousin Anne Slimbrouck and her husband, both operating as doctors in the eighties and early nineties in what they called one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Here they both worked a noble project in healthcare and raised their children, until disaster struck. Twenty-five years later, Rwanda is a different nation. Today, the East African nation, torn apart by the 1994 genocide, is unrecognizable from what it used to be in those years. It is a stable country with a rule of law and zero tolerance on ecology, cleanliness and sustainability. Institutions function well, there is no corruption and on the economic scale the country is moving upwards on a steady pace. The past two decades have changed the society completely.
“We cannot turn the clock back nor can we undo the harm caused, but we have the power to determine the future and to ensure that what happened never happens again.” said his Excellency President Paul Kagame.
It is impossible not to see and learn about the impact of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. But the people of Rwanda have moved forward positively; an example and success story of living in peace and reconciliation. Today Rwanda is a safe, vibrant and forward-looking country. The country has seen huge changes in improved education, health, social security and encourages entrepreneurship. But foremost, should you go, you will fall in love with the smiles of the people.
Rwanda, how do you get there?
Traveling to Rwanda is easy thanks to the recent expansion of the national carrier airline RwandAir, which has improved connectivity in the region, Africa and internationally. Other international carriers that connect well into Kigali – Brussels Airlines, Ethiopian, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airways, KLM, Ethiopian and Kenya Airways – are currently flying to Kigali and connecting the country with London, Amsterdam and Brussels in Europe and Dubai, Doha and Istanbul in the Middle East. For local flights; Coastal Aviation, Auric Air (both flying to Serengeti via Mwanza) and Akagera Aviation offer charters and helicopter rides throughout Rwanda. Rwanda is in the meantime building the second largest Airport in Africa (after OR Tambo) and is scheduled to open mid-2020.
Kigali, city for conferences and meetings
I arrived to Kigali by RwandAir on a direct non-stop flight from Brussels. Officials whisked me through the airport formalities and I was picked up by Ismael from BEEA and driver Bosco who were proud to tell me how their nation had developed over the last twenty years. The rebirth of the nation came with a lot of infrastructure investments. The regeneration of Rwanda on the business side included the development of world class conference and accommodation facilities. The Kigali Convention Center, a large structure with a domed auditorium and a total floor space of 32,200 square meters is one of the main reasons why conferences in Africa have started flocking to Kigali since its opening in 2016. The center hosted major exhibitions, international conferences, African summits and sporting events, as well as small boardroom-style meetings.
The Rwanda Convention Bureau who were my hosts this week have a close collaboration with the private sector. That way they make sure to have a uniform approach to improve and position Rwanda as a complete and desired destination for meetings, incentives and events and invest in the right infrastructure and services. Cheap visas upon arrivals, for instance, is a great added value!
Just before my arrival in Kigali, the city inaugurated the new Kigali Arena that will be able to host mega-events, because it can comfortably accommodate up to 10,000 people. This is enormous for the destination because this new infrastructure enables this emerging destination to offer to large-scale events, business meetings, sports and concerts as well as art and fashion exhibitions.
My afternoon of day one of this trip involved site inspections of the major conference and meeting hotels. 3,500 rooms and adjacent conference facilities are currently available in a range of independent and branded hotels with two to five-star ratings in Kigali. This includes the Radisson Blu (adjacent to and operator of the Convention Centre), Marriott, Park Inn by Radisson and the 5 star Kigali Serena who hosted my stay.
Ovation Global DMC chose Business Events East Africa as its trusted partner for destination services already two years ago. Through their expertise and intimate understanding of the ground knowledge of the country, they are your perfect guide to assist you in selecting the most suitable venues and programme of side events to inspire conference delegates and incentive travelers alike.
Prior to the trip I had asked a client about her recent conference experience in Kigali. “The first thing which surprised me was how easy the country made it for us to bring international business to Rwanda, with visas on arrival for all nationalities. The standard of accommodation and facilities for a small meeting (50 delegates) was second to none, and the “can do” attitude of all the suppliers encountered meant I was able to hold a second meeting in Kigali within 9 months of the first. I hope to be bringing more business to Rwanda soon, knowing that I can count on the support of great professionals who understand what is important to my attendees and meeting owners, and will ensure that all services provided support our organization’s objectives every step of the way” said a former colleague and friend, Lindsay Seth, who recently managed a pan-African conference in Kigali for her association.
The Rwandan economy grew by 8.6% in 2018 so the country is definitely on the way up. The work to promote Rwanda to business and associations events around the world means that the nation is now recognized by the global community as one of Africa’s leading conference and events destinations, as well as to offer unforgettable tailor-made African experiences in a safe environment. Three languages are officially spoken in Rwanda: Kinyarwanda, French and English. Rwanda also has the highest percentage of female politicians in the world. Women make up 61% of the nation’s parliament.
One of the best things about Kigali city is that it is safe to wander the streets and explore the city by foot. The best way to immerse yourself in the local art, fashion and cultural scene. Restaurants in Kigali serve a variety of cuisines, including Indian, Chinese, Italian and African. For our first dinner Frank Murangwa hosted me at the popular Republica Restaurant. Typical Rwandan dishes are Ugali – a kind of cornmeal porridge, Isombe, which is made from pure cassava leaves cooked in peanut butter and Matoke, a dish made from baked or steamed plantains. With the abundance of fish in Lake Kivu, Tilapia is available throughout the country on restaurant menus but my favorite was a basket of (whitebait). After dinner one can dive into the safe nightlife. Clubs and bars have great music and happy crowds to explore. And they have good beers too, always a good item to attract Belgians like me… You will see Primus and Mützig all over the country, but my pick of the week was the Virunga Gold.
The land of thousand hills
Although the development of public infrastructure, conference facilities and hotels has enabled Rwanda to host a larger number of conferences, meetings and events, it is the connection with the land and its wild nature that inspires us the most in this new and emerging destination. Rwanda has some great options before and after the conference that delegates can take advantage of, both inside and outside Kigali. The first two things that struck me were the excellent quality of the main roads and the cleanliness – no plastics or rubbish is thrown to the side of the roads; we can all learn something from this! Rwandans take pride in their responsibility to be ecologically responsible and sustainable in anything they do. Rwanda became the first country in the world to impose an outright ban on plastic bags. The country organizes a national clean-up day – Umuganda – on the last Saturday of every month when every able-bodied person between the age of 18 and 65 – including the president – is required to help clear the streets of waste and get involved in local community projects. My mother always says that if everyone cleans in front of their house, you get a clean street. In Rwanda, this is not a wish, but a reality!
Rwanda is known as the “land of a thousand hills” because most of the country is covered with rolling hills. Along excellent and clean roads, thousands and thousands of people walk and most goods are transported on the top of their heads or on their bicycles. I have never seen so many people walking and cycling as here. And there is no rubbish on the ground. With year-round temperatures of 24° to 27°, it’s not too hot either. A rain shower once in a while brings some freshness. The volcano region is an exception to that, so expect a regular shower to see the gorillas in the mist.
From the youngest ones to the older people, everyone transports something. This can be firewood, plantains or bananas, sugar cane, water or banana beer, sweet potatoes or cabbages. As these are not flatlands but rolling hills, you can imagine the healthy condition of these people. No surprise that Rwanda has some great cyclists! I even saw a live pig on the back of a bike which brought to me a new meaning to UBER EATS (or was it Ribs-on-Wheels?).
On our drive south to the Nyungwe forest we made a brief stopover at the Nyanza Kings Palace in Huye. A reminiscence of colonial times. In the beautiful art deco building, I found several pictures of the former King of Rwanda with our Belgian King Boudewijn. Impressive is the herd of Kings Cows with their huge horns which are kept in the grounds around the palace. These gave the king and his family a constant supply of milk and dairy products. Definitely a nice stopover on the long drive to the rain forest.
One & Only
Those who are looking for a mix of culture, nature and luxury should head south-west to the One & Only Nyungwe House. Located next to ancient rain forests and set in the middle of a working tea plantation, it is the perfect place to relax with a few spa treatments in natural surroundings.
While you are there, view the rain forest from a new perspective by taking a walk on the famous Canopy Walkway. The 70-meter high structure hangs over the forest floor between giant trees and reveals a beautiful view of the flora and fauna, below and above. There is an abundance of birds and monkeys to be heard and often to be seen including Black and White Columbus and Golden monkeys. Nyungwe National Park, located in the Great Rift Valley is one of Africa’s largest protected mountain rain forests. It is an impressive ecosystem that boasts rain forest, bamboo forests, grasslands and swamps. It is home to thousands of plants and orchids and a paradise for birds as well. Part of the forest is one of the few places in Africa where you can track chimpanzees, and we were lucky to find a big troop of them after a one hour walk in the forest.
Under the volcano
The next day, a drive along the shores and emerald waters of Lake Kivu took us to Musanze, the base of the Volcano National Park. A beautiful ride amongst the countryside with one impressive valley after the other. We stopped for lunch on the waterfront in Kibuye. It felt like the French Riviera, but without the French and the Belgians and the superyachts.
Rwanda has five volcanoes, the Karisimbi, Muhabura, Bisoke, Sabyinyo and Gahinga. Karisimbi measures the highest at 4,507m above sea level. These are all located in the north of the country in the Volcanos National park on the border with Congo and Uganda. The main attraction in this region is of the course the Gorilla tracking, but many other natural activities are possible including volcano trekking and camping, canoeing and cycling. Although Rwanda has one of the largest population densities in central Africa, the country has recognized the critical need for conservation-based tourism and economic development through the protection of its natural ecosystems. Rwanda has a unique revenue sharing programme through which 10% of all tourism park revenue are invested in local community development projects.
With this top level of activity (gorilla tracking is expensive to discourage over-tourism) comes the need for luxury lodges, and apart from those who have been available for a number of years, there are a few dashing newcomers.
I stayed at the Bishops House, an 8 room all-inclusive boutique hotel, where you are introduced to all the staff upon check-in and services are very personalized, including the washing, steaming and ironing of your dirty clothes and shoes after trekking.
Play Misty for me!
Mountain gorilla trekking is possibly on many people’s bucket list and I was no exception to that. It is one of the most captivating activities in Africa. The conservation project of mountain gorillas was made famous by the research of Dian Fossey who first started living here, alone with her dog in 1967. She was joined by photographer Bob Campbell who got the unique assignment to go and photograph her in 1969. The rest is history and the movie ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ told us their story, which boosted the conservation project.
All trekkers assemble at the Volcanoes National Park offices for registration, Gorilla allocations and briefing on the trekking procedures as well as the “do’s and don’ts” in the park. There are a total of 96 gorilla permits available each day with a maximum of eight trekkers visiting any one group. Treks vary in duration depending on which gorilla group you are assigned to. After locating your assigned gorilla group, you will spend approximately one hour in their company before heading back down the volcano slopes. And so, this silver fox (me) met the silverback (Agashya) as well as the rest of his family of 27 mountain gorillas which includes one silverback, two black backs, females and babies who were living on the slopes of the Sabyinyo. We were lucky that it only took us 45 minutes to reach the group. It is a very emotional experience, to say the least. Trekking is tough because of the heavy and wet terrain due to regular rainfall and mist. But worth the effort!
After lunch, we went for some more venue scouting. Due to calendar challenges, I missed the official opening of the Singita Kwitonda Lodge and the Kataza House earlier that week, but we included a site inspection. With this property, the owners strive to embody the gentle, regenerative spirit of Rwanda. So after seeing baby gorillas, we came to see a 3-day old baby hotel. But what property this will be! One that definitely redefines luxury lodge experiences in this part of the world. Singita will provide a contemplative nurturing space in which to appreciate the transformative, often spiritual experience of coming face to face with the forest’s gentle giants. The terrain around the lodge still needs to ‘grow’ all the planted trees and shrubs but the facilities in the main building and individual house villas is second to none. Architecture applied here has played with the local materials and colours. They have thought about anything. The property is all-inclusive with a wide selection of South African wines. I was shown around by the assistant manager Lydia who is a former live worked at the Arts in Barcelona. What a change of terrain!
Opening soon will be the One & Only Gorillas which promises to be yet another great property in this region. Wilderness Safaris also operates luxury lodges in the Akagera National Park (an area which we did not visit on this trip).
Sunday we spent a lazy day along Lake Kivu, on the western side of the country. It is one of a string of huge freshwater lakes which lie along Africa’s Great Rift Valley. The real joy of this area is driving between the towns on the shore on the Congo Nile Trail. A slow but scenic route which gently curves as it weaves through hills and mountains, tea and coffee plantations and plenty of farmland, connecting Nyungwe Forest National Park with the Volcanos National Park. The Lake Kivu Serena Hotel in Gisenyi (or Rubavu) is a perfect spot, not only for meetings and events but definitely for a Sunday afternoon by the pool with a view over the lake and the shores on the Congo site. Once a colonial beach resort, Gisenyi waterfront is lined with fading old mansions, hotels and trendy bars, ideal for sundowners.
Before heading back to Kigali where I was due to conduct a meetings industry masterclass for the Rwanda Convention Bureau community, we went up to the volcano again to visit one of the most exclusive accommodations in East Africa: the Bisate Lodge. Owned by South African Wilderness Safaris it offers a six-villa home right in the heart of the Virunga National Park. Probably one of the most exclusive lodges in Africa, it sits, or rather hangs like birds’ nests on the slopes of a hill, immediately facing the adjacent volcano. “This is more than just a luxury lodge but a project that totally involved the local community and farmers into a conservation project,” said Jomi Krobb and Hadley Pierce, the couple who manage the lodge. Uniqueness factor 10, sustainability 9, community score 10, price 10 and rising.
After this, it was time to come back to earth.
I would like to express my most sincere thanks to Nelly Mukazayire, CEO and Frank Murangwa, Director of Destination Marketing of the Rwanda Convention Bureau (RCB) for their invitation to discover and educate me on the opportunities of the country in terms of meetings, conferences and incentives. Same goes to our Ovation Global DMC partner for Rwanda Chris Munyao, CEO of Business Events East Africa (BEEA) who supplied the resources to travel around the country under the expert guidance of Bosco, one of his excellent driver/guides who was simply phenomenal and thought me a lot about the people and the transformation. Throughout the trip, we were escorted by Carolyne Nkiwihoreze, Corporate & Incentive Manager of the RCB as our on-site host and bodyguard. Thanks for all the guidance and fun.