Rosette Muhoza did not set out to become the public face of Rwanda’s new wave of green pioneers. But aged just 24, Muhoza and a generation of young Rwandans have become powerful proponents of the “win-win” philosophy of sustainable innovation.

“We’ll always have waste, so it’s important to see waste as a resource,” Muhoza says. “What we’re doing is on one side promoting the circular economy, but we’re also contributing to green growth by creating green products and green jobs.”

Muhoza’s route into sustainability entrepreneurship was organic. In 2017, she and classmate David Kinzuzi simply thought it would be a nice idea for a school project to show local people how to recycle. “We thought, why can’t we just do something that will benefit the community?” she says. “If I said I had had training in the circular economy or sustainability, that would be a lie.”

But it just so happened that, around the same time, UNICEF and telecom company Airtel Africa was running a competition calling for sustainable innovations. Muhoza thought something could be done with the waste materials she had been dealing with.

“Nowadays people seem really interested in protecting the environment, but they’re not that interested in waste, and the circular economy, in general, is still a new concept,” she says. “That’s why we decided to incorporate an eco-friendly product into our solution, to get a little more interest from people.”

Muhoza had the idea of melting down plastic trash from around Kigali and fusing it with sand. She and Kinzuzi found the resulting substance was durable and could be formed into a variety of shapes—ideal for paving and construction projects around the capital. After trying out a few prototypes, their concept won the UNICEF competition, and the duo formed a company, My Green Home. In short order, My Green Home also won the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Innovation for Sustainable Development Award, which saw Muhoza fly to the U.K. to meet Prince Harry.

“I think the concept of the green, circular economy is being talked about everywhere, and perhaps it’s being adopted—but in Rwanda, we’re making policies which help businesses that are bringing together green ideas,” says Muhoza, who studied business management with the long-distance Kepler program run by Southern New Hampshire University in the U.S.

“For a country that doesn’t have a lot of resources, that gives us a chance to utilize what we do have more effectively,” she says.

A lack of resources, in effect, generates heightened resourcefulness.

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“Building policies; creating awareness; building platforms where people can also get that information: it’s all vital,” Muhoza says. “Not everyone yet knows what the circular economy is, so you need to get everyone on board.”

Land of a Thousand Hills

It’s become a trope among climate researchers that the nations that have done the least to cause climate change are also those who will be harmed most by it.

Nowhere is that truer than Rwanda. Nestled in the heart of Africa and a little bigger than Vermont, Rwanda has one of the smallest carbon footprints in the world—producing just 1 million tons of CO2 in 2019. Per capita, Rwandans each generated less than 0.1 tons of CO2 in 2017. By comparison, the average U.K. resident was responsible for 5.82 tons that same year. A typical Briton, then, generates at least 58 times more carbon than a typical Rwandan.

Yet with an economy based largely on agriculture, landlocked Rwanda is very much at the mercy of changing weather patterns, as the country declared in a 2006 report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change:

“Being a country with an economy essentially based on rain-fed agriculture, it is with no doubt vulnerable to negative effects of climate change. With a rate of 60% of the population below [the] poverty line, its adaptive capacity to impacts related to extreme meteorological phenomena is very low.”

Given these concerns, and taking into account the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi people, which saw 800,000 Rwandans murdered and society torn apart, it would perhaps be fair to assume the Rwanda of today finds itself in a weakened, vulnerable state.

Not so.

First, there’s the country’s appearance. Visitors will tell you that Rwanda in 2021 gleams: unlike many developing nations the streets are free from litter and refuse. Modern, hi-tech buildings are rising across the capital, Kigali, which is on the way to becoming a smart city, with perhaps the best connectivity of any African center. Kigali also boasts a low crime rate and is often cited as one of the safest cities in Africa.

In the last 26 years, Rwanda has undergone seismic social and economic shifts. First, there’s the economic boom: a series of seven-year national strategic plans, combined with support from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, led to the economic growth of 7.2% between 2010 and 2019. In 2019, the World Bank says, the country’s GDP grew 9.4%.

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This economic development, the Rwandan government claims, has led to a dramatic fall in poverty—from 77.2% in 2001 to 55.5% in 2017. In 2020, the poverty rate was said to stand at 39%.

Socially, Rwanda is in some areas truly progressive: in terms of gender equality, the country is world-leading, with women making up 62% of Rwanda’s parliament, the national legislature.

And environmentally, Rwanda has resolved to take the front foot: the government has placed climate change policy as a priority and has taken pains to build sustainability into its national development strategy, and in particular into its vital agricultural sector.

Yet huge challenges remain: in 2018 some 57.3% of the population was classed as food-insecure, according to the Chronic Poverty Network. And to finance its transformation, Rwanda has taken on increasing foreign debt, with its debt-to-GDP ratio rising from 19.4% in 2010 to 56.7% in 2019.

Meanwhile, many in the West are critical of the country’s president, Paul Kagame, now in his third seven-year term in office, for what they say is a heavy-handed approach towards dissent. There are strict controls on freedom of speech, and Rwanda’s opposition parties have little power in practice. Western human rights organizations have repeatedly raised concerns over the deaths of opposition figures.

But advocates for the administration dismiss such concerns. They say that in the aftermath of the genocide, Kagame’s no-compromise style of leadership enabled this chronically divided nation to heal, giving Rwanda the stability it needed to achieve the aforementioned transformation. The efficacy of Kagame’s leadership, supporters say, has been further illustrated throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Rwanda ranks among the top nations in the world for its response to the virus, as a result of which the country has seen just 349 fatalities at the time of writing.

Now, the country is moving into a new phase and crafting for itself a new role: Rwanda aims to be a pioneer of the green transition. And leading that transition is a generation of young Rwandans for whom sustainability is not just an environmental imperative, but a vital business opportunity.

Circular Thinking

In 2011, 11-year-old Ghislain Irakoze was on a school trip in Musanze, northern Rwanda, to study the problem of urban pollution. Irakoze and his primary school classmates were inspecting heaps of household waste when a three-meter mound of refuse collapsed, burying Irakoze’s best friend. Aghast, Irakoze rushed over to dig his friend out of the trash: he was alive, but the sheer weight of the garbage had fractured his leg in multiple places.

“I was horrified; the incident touched me deeply,” Irakoze, now 21, recalls. “I kept thinking about the probability of such a thing happening.”

His friend, who asked not to be named in this article, eventually made a full recovery, but Irakoze now had an enduring mission. “I’m on a journey to create a waste-free world,” he’s fond of saying.

In 2017, while still a student, Irakoze organized a volunteer campaign that recruited young people to come up with ideas for creative waste recycling. The campaign attracted 200 volunteers who repurposed more than 100 tons of plastic waste. Following this success, the following year Irakoze teamed up with local software developers to found Wastezon, an app that connects households, recyclers, and scrap dealers in an effort to repurpose electronic waste, such as old appliances. The United Nations Environment Program has since recognized Irakoze in its Young Champions of the Earth program for his innovative approach to circularity.

“Our guiding principles are ‘reduce; reuse; repair’,” Irakoze says. “The longer you can continue to use a product or a material, the less impact you are having on the climate and on the environment.”

Irakoze is far from alone on his journey. Across Rwanda, eco-conscious entrepreneurs are injecting their own ingenuity into a nascent sustainability movement. According to Rwanda’s environment minister, Jeanne D’Arc Mujawamariya, that’s all part of a national plan to build a circular economy.

“In a circular economy, no waste is wasted,” Mujawamariya says. “It’s a win-win for the people and the planet, as it has the potential to create thousands of green jobs and improve the health and well-being of communities.”

Mujawamariya tells me the Rwandan government is incorporating this messaging across all departments, from the Ministry of Trade and Industry to the Ministry of Agriculture, as well as working with the private sector. But at the heart of the sustainability strategy, Mujawamariya says, is the community.

“As with the case of Covid, without communities, we cannot develop sustainably,” she stresses. “And as a government, our efforts may fail if we don’t put the community at the center of our effort to encourage a circular economy.”

There is good reason to believe that this talk is more than just greenwash. To pick a parallel, Rwanda’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak demonstrated the nation’s ability to mobilize on a society-wide level. Introducing a strict lockdown and an effective testing regimen has resulted in just 26 Covid deaths per million citizens—compare this with the 1,903 deaths per million seen in the U.K. So effective has the country been in curbing the spread of the virus that Rwanda’s response has been held up as an example of how to deal with the pandemic.

“The key to Rwanda’s success with coronavirus is that the people trust the leadership,” Mujawamariya says. “Without mobilizing the population, we would not be able to contain the spread of the pandemic, and the people have seen the effort that the leadership has put into their protection. So that’s why I think we’ve succeeded in containing it. But of course, even one life is too much.”

However you parse this bold political message, public health bodies agree that trust of the authorities is key to instituting effective public health policy.

“I think people understand that together, with the government, we can fight this; that the government alone cannot fight it,” Mujawamariya says. “It requires everyone to sacrifice.” She notes that the pandemic required many businesses in Rwanda to shut up shop, and for public officials to stop all travel, including flights in and out of Kigali.

But Mujawamariya says the choice between public health and the economy was an easy one to make. “Of course, such sacrifices affect the economy,” she says. But the economy of the country is there for our people. If we don’t have people, we can’t have an economy.”

It could be argued that this point of view, unconstrained by a neoliberal ideology that pits profits against people, gives Rwanda an advantageous position when it comes to carrying out a green transition.

A foundation for that transition was put in place in 2011, with the introduction of the country’s National Green Growth and Climate Resilience Strategy.

Developed in conjunction with the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment at the University of Oxford, the strategy’s aim is to “guide the process of mainstreaming climate resilience and low carbon development into key sectors of the economy,” while in the process, “focusing society on qualitative growth rather than simply increasing GDP.”

This strategy, Mujawamariya says, along with the country’s 2017 National Strategy for Transformation, is part of an ambitious plan to make Rwanda a developed economy by 2050.

But how does going green enable that?

Sam Fankhauser, professor of climate change economics and policy at the University of Oxford, believes the National Green Growth strategy takes the right approach. He was not on the team that formulated the plan but offered to take an independent look at the document.

“It’s a brilliant start because it’s a green growth rather than a decarbonization strategy,” Fankhauser says. “It’s not a climate law: it combines development with emissions and resilience.”

This differs from many countries’ approaches to dealing with climate change, which is to simply focus on reducing carbon emissions by a number of tons, rather than building low carbon practices into the economy.

“This is much more of an economic document that talks about development needs and the opportunities that come with development in a climate change context,” Fankhauser says. “Rich countries should do the same. They shouldn’t just count the tons: they should look at the growth opportunities and the job market, and train people in jobs that are relevant for the future economy, not the past economy.”

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Furthermore, Fankhauser makes the point that Rwanda, with its exceptionally low electricity usage, has a chance, as it develops, to build a green energy grid almost from scratch. He likens the opportunity to the spread of mobile phones throughout the African continent, where previously landline infrastructure had barely existed—a phenomenon that has revolutionized life for millions.

“In the U.K. you had a full fossil fuel-based electricity system, which you have to eat into by building renewable energy and growing the clean share of that electricity,” he says. “But in a country like Rwanda, you don’t need to go buy the expensive infrastructure; you can go straight to renewables and have decentralized energy systems.”

This is far from theoretical: all across Africa, renewable energy is offering new ways to deliver the essentials to communities, from street lighting in Uganda to fresh water in Senegal.

To enable the reskilling of Rwanda’s workforce, in 2019 the government established the Cleaner Production and Climate Innovation Center (CPCIC). Described by Mujawamariya as a “one-stop-shop” for all sorts of resources related to sustainability, the center provides training for Rwandans in clean production and climate-resilient technologies, in both the public and private sectors.

“Green innovation is a crucial driver of economic growth and development,” says Steven Niyonzima, the center’s acting CEO. “That’s why the country has put the environment, sustainability, and green growth at the heart of its development model.”

CPCIC says it has so far helped generate $6.5 million dollars in revenue for the industry and small to medium enterprises and led to thousands of new green jobs. The center is also responsible for advising businesses on how to make their operations more sustainable and helps firms secure access to green funding from various bodies, including FONERWA, Rwanda’s climate change investment fund.

Niyonzima says that thanks to the efficiency and cleaner production practices CPCIC and its predecessor have introduced to firms, 30,000 tons of CO2 emissions and 22,390 tons of waste have been saved.

But as crucial as government investment and training schemes are the ultimate success of the broader plan to foster a sustainable economy depends on a public that is receptive to the need for a society-wide transformation. And it might just be here that Rwanda’s true advantage lies.

Green from the Grassroots

Every last Saturday of the month, Yvette, an IT student at the Adventist University of Central Africa in Kigali, heads out to take part in community service. Sometimes she’ll pick up litter; other days she might help plant trees or lend a hand with a construction project.

And the 23-year-old doesn’t begrudge these tasks—because everyone else is doing it too. At least, they did until the pandemic hit. “Until the pandemic, we would enjoy participating,” Yyvette tells me. “The whole community would take part.”

This community service is called Umuganda, a Kinyarwanda word meaning “coming together in common purpose.” And everyone, except for the infirm, takes part. “That includes our president,” Mujawamariya tells me. “It includes our first lady; our prime minister—because it requires the effort of everyone.”

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Participation in Umuganda, however, is mandatory: failing to show up for service can result in a fine of around $6. The police are also known to stop people in the street and compel them to help if they can’t provide an explanation for why they are not carrying out an Umuganda-related activity. Some liberal Westerners balk at the compulsory nature of the practice which, in Europe or North America, would be seen as an authoritarian imposition. But in the view of proponents such as Mujawamariya, the rule is a small price to pay. As she puts it, “everyone benefits from having a clean, green nation.”

The waste recovered during Umuganda is distributed to recycling plants throughout the country—though just how much of that waste is effectively repurposed is hard to determine.

Yvette, who asked not to reveal her surname, says she and her fellow students have a good understanding of how Umuganda fits into Rwanda’s sustainability goals—and why it’s necessary for the future of the country.

“It’s part of the circular economy, which is highly important for Rwanda,” she says. “We have a reduce, reuse and recycle system, which is helpful because raw materials are hard to find. Instead of increasing waste, we use it to produce new products.” Sustainable innovation, Yvette believes, can also boost exports while making Rwanda less reliant on foreign imports, strengthening the economy.

This is one of the premises that motivated Noel Nizeyimana to start his firm Greencare, in the country’s Southern Province. While studying for his undergraduate degree in soil and environment management and civil engineering in Huye city, Nizeyimana, 30, was exasperated by the levels of pollution he was seeing around the campus.

“Waste collection was poorly organized: the small quantity that was collected was disposed of in a very crude and unhygienic way,” he recalls. “Waste was simply piling up in the streets and in unmanaged landfill sites, creating serious health and social risks, disease, and pollution.” The smell was unbearable. And the community’s waste pickers, who eke out a living sorting through refuse, were exposed to toxic substances.

Along with three friends—Francis Mizinduko, Christian Ruzindana, and Jean-Paul Iyakaremye—Nizeyimana came up with a plan to turn the community around. A student of soil and environment management, Nizeyimana recognized that a great deal of the waste could be repurposed. Some 75% was biodegradable and could be turned into compost. Up to 20% of the remainder was made up of miscellaneous plastics, which could be turned into pavers, as Rosette Muhoza discovered.

“It’s a great pleasure to be able to understand the challenge of climate change and to try to develop positive change,” Nizeyimana says, referring to a combination of “stakeholder inclusivity, financial sustainability and governance policies that help lead to the circular economy.” He also singles out Umuganda as a practice that “helps communities to understand their connection to the environment through a sensitive dialogue with that environment.”

Greencare’s compost, called GreKompost, is now distributed to farmers across the country as an organic, wholly sustainable fertilizer. The firm now has a permanent staff of 25, and last year produced 400 tons of compost and 2,560 square meters of pavers. By 2025, Nizeyimana says they will be producing 5,000 tons of compost per year.

For Ghislain Irakoze at Wastezon, things have only just begun: 420 households have now signed up, while the app connects users to 55 repair shops and two recycling centers. Thanks to the app, Wastezon has gone from processing 20 tons of electronic waste in 2019 to well over 400 tons last year, which the company calculates is equivalent to 2,826 tons of avoided CO2 emissions.

Irakoze says now is the time to reveal Wastezon’s latest innovation: the Smart Bin, which he says is a “win-win solution to the problem of household waste.” The device is essentially an advanced composter, which automatically sorts household waste and even tracks waste decomposition.

But perhaps more vitally, Wastezon is beginning to export its innovative platform: startups in Kenya and Tanzania are using the Wastezon business model to create their own circular e-waste platforms, and Irakoze’s app could end up spanning Africa.

“We’re even eyeing some Western African countries with big economies, like Nigeria and Ghana,” Irakoze says. “I really think there’s a great demand to scale up circular economy solutions in Africa.”

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Rosette Muhoza, likewise, is keen to expand My Green Home, after recently moving out of the prototype stage. The company now has five collection centers in Kigali, and employs five members of staff. “If we can get more funding and make some sales, we’ll start producing roofing tiles and other construction materials,” she says. “But we need to spread awareness of what the circular economy can do.”

Muhoza says there is nothing magical about Rwanda’s approach. Rwandans are not somehow more predisposed than other people to embrace circularity. Rather, she says, heightened community awareness combined with fresh opportunities for innovators to develop their ideas has created an energetic milieu that has got young people engaging with the idea of a new kind of economy.

“It’s still something we’re adopting, and it’ll take time. But setting out policies to help startups and just allowing people to come to the table to share their ideas is really promising and makes me really hopeful,” Muhoza says. “We’re literally building a whole different mindset.”

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