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The cleanest city on the planet? Kigali scrubs up


This story was originally reported by Aimable Twahirwa, and edited by James Baer and Laurie Goering for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the rainy season, water used to pour into Dativa Nyiramajyambere’s house on a cheap plot of land in the Kigali suburb of Rugenge. Outside her home, a half-metre-wide hole in the pavement gathered rubbish.

But in 2009, Kigali’s leaders decided to start demolishing slums in the capital’s poor suburbs – those with little access to piped water or electricity – and replace them with new roads and homes.

Nyiramajyambere, who had owned a small milk shop, was given a modest new home on the outskirts of the city. Families like hers also got compensation of $1,500-2,000 to help them settle in.

The move was a first step in what has turned into an ambitious master plan to clean up Kigali – one that has led to the city being hailed as one of the greenest and cleanest in Africa.

Earlier this year, at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, U.N. Environment Programme head Eric Solheim referred to Kigali as the “cleanest city on the planet”, both in terms of lack of rubbish on the streets and green initiatives.

The accolade recognised a combination of government schemes that have made the Rwandan capital much tidier than before, but that also have spurred resistance from many displaced slum-dwellers.

The clean-up effort is in part a response to rapid growth in the capital, which has seen its population double since 1996, to about 1.3 million residents, many of them living in informal settlements, according to the municipal government.

Kigali is the modern Capital city of Rwanda. The Boda Boda riders insists on one passenger only and helmets must be worn. Photo Credit: Dylan Walters/Flickr

Kigali is the modern Capital city of Rwanda. The Boda Boda riders insist on one passenger only and helmets must be worn. Photo Credit: Dylan Walters/Flickr


In 2013, municipal authorities drew up a master plan to improve the city’s environment while also trying to promote social inclusion, sustainable economic development and access to civic facilities.

One focus was traffic congestion. To try to alleviate it, the Rwandan government spent $76 million to pave narrow streets, widen all main roads to dual carriageways, and improve signs.

It also upgraded bus services between the suburbs and the city centre to encourage people to use public transport, said Bruno Rangira, a Kigali city spokesman, in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As well, the government committed nearly $40 million to relocate several dozen factories in a former wetlands industrial area to a newly established Special Economic Zone.

It has also begun to remove nearly 2,100 smaller businesses – from motor repair shops to restaurants – that encroach on the city’s wetlands, with the goal of restoring the land to its natural state by 2020.

Parfait Busabizwa, Kigali’s vice-mayor for economic development, told reporters in December that the city wants to create an artificial lake on reclaimed wetlands, for recreation and to protect against flooding, a worsening problem in the city as climate change brings more intense rainfall.

Owners of businesses constructed illegally on wetlands are not being offered compensation, according to the Rwanda Environmental Management Authority and the ministry in charge of industries.

But they will be given the chance to buy new land in a suburban area, where they will be given construction permits, Busabizwa said.

Other legal businesses displaced by the cleanup effort are expected to receive compensation and help relocating by the end of 2019, using a nearly $30 million government fund, he said.

Not all business owners are happy about the shift.

Emile Murekezi, who saw his garage in Kinamba, a marshland suburb, closed and demolished in 2015, said he is now doing part-time jobs while waiting to find an appropriate place to relocate his shop.

Shifting businesses could lead to “many people losing their jobs”, he said, as old clients disappear and finding new ones proves a struggle.

Slum residents and landlords with property in central parts of the city also have objected to being relocated, usually to more distant areas.


One goal of the changes in the city is to reach more people with services, but greener ones – such as biogas from sewage, Rangira said.

Key contributors to Kigali’s green push are residents themselves who, like all Rwandan citizens, are required to perform a day of community work, called “umuganda”, once a month.

Rwandan citizens taking part in ‘Umuganda’, also translated as ‘coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome’. Photo Credit: Rwanda Environment Management Authority

In the capital, the long-established workdays focus on things like clearing land for community gardens, picking up rubbish, or helping to build new roads, classrooms or residential toilets for families that lack them.

The city also is trying to set up trash collection sites in all suburban areas and is working with local businesses to install public toilets, Rangira said.

In the meantime, Busabizwa said that Kigali, rather than relying primarily on fines to ensure cleanliness, is building awareness campaigns to promote a culture of hygiene.

According to national government statistics, more than 90 percent of households in Kigali now have access to toilets and to clean water.

The city also plans to create a new more than $300 million wastewater treatment plant by 2022 in Giti Cy’Inyoni, a suburb of Kigali, according to Giselle Umuhumuza, deputy managing director of the government’s Water and Sanitation Corporation.

Teddy Kaberuka, a Kigali-based independent researcher on economic and development issues, said that clean-up efforts – from banning plastic bags to budgeting for city cleaning – have crucially been accompanied by efforts to persuade people of the benefits of the changes.

Even more progress in winning backing for the green push could be made by creating more jobs for cleaners, rubbish collectors, and gardeners, he said.

So far, the Rwanda Utility Regulatory Authority has granted nearly 200 licenses to cleaning services companies, which mostly hire women relocated from shanty towns, according to a 2017 report by the authority.

Nyiramajyambere is one of them, having traded her job as an informal shop owner for one as a street cleaner – something she says has increased her income.

“Thanks to the new job, I can now feed my family and my children are now going to schools,” she said.

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