I spent the early part of last week on a work assignment that has taken me on an annual trip to Kigali for the last five years. However, this year I was struck with the significantly high number of new buildings that were sprouting out of every corner of the central business district.
First let me give the ubiquitous credit that Kigali deserves. You can eat off the pristine streets. Literally. I took an early morning walk, before the sun’s rays had even slipped out of bed. I was assured that the city was extremely safe even in the dwindling darkness. The streets were deathly quiet while ornamental bottle palms rose ramrod straight along the medians, standing guard over the brightly lit roads. Every so often, I would randomly find solitary armed guards standing at ease on a street corner providing undisguised assurance. Despite being completely alone in the breaking dawn, I never once considered that I might be unsafe.
In the course of walking along the streets, the sheen fell off the lustre of what looked like a rapidly growing commercial real estate sector. Several new buildings, many of which had startlingly beautiful architecture I might add, stood empty past the first floor.
By the end of my walk I was struck at how many such buildings I had walked past. I asked some locals what the back story was later in the day. It turns out that part of the city’s strategic master plan was to zone certain areas as commercial. This zoning came with a land utilisation plan, which required that any building with less than one floor would have to have an additional minimum of four floors above it. Where the building owner was unable to undertake this development, he would have to sell the property to someone else who purportedly could.
The result, of course, is an overstock of commercial real estate in Kigali simply because there are not as many viable off-takers for office space as was imagined.
In a defensive play, the City of Kigali this year passed a rule that businesses could not be based in residential areas. The objective, obviously, is to drive these tenants into the central business district and provide much needed respite from the stress induced heart attacks that low occupancy, coupled with oversupply causes to the highly leveraged property developers.
This cannot go on for too long though. At some point the banking industry will stop giving loans to developers, a number of whom are foreign, due to the repayment lag that is certainly developing on the real estate segment of their loan portfolios.
If credit in that sector begins to become tight, then developers will have to either use cash to build – which requires excessively deep pockets – or they may have to borrow from other jurisdictions, which brings in greater risks such as currency fluctuations. The City of Kigali fathers will have to relax or pretend not to notice the property owners who are not acceding to the zoning laws requiring storied buildings.
One thing the Rwandese are getting right is the international conference business. With the traditional hut inspired architectural masterpiece that is the Rwandan Convention Centre, as well as the singular government focus to drive conference tourism, Kigali has certainly established itself as a premier conference destination.
When this assignment took me there last year, we landed at the airport only to find the immigration queues literally starting on the tarmac of the airport, before getting into the terminal building.
A KLM jumbo jet had landed just before us and over 300 passengers were inching their way to about eight immigration counters. All this because that particular week was a big agricultural conference.
It took about two and a half maddening hours to get past immigration only to get to the hotel and discover that the government had commandeered our rooms (which we were told is not uncommon) to give them to conference participants of their choice.
We were politely “moved” to other hotels, while my colleague was dispatched to a dive somewhere in the outskirts of the city, which made for entertaining anecdotes from a furious colleague who had mentally prepared to stay at the five-star hotel that we were originally booked in.
I do have to applaud the Rwandans for providing electronic immigration gates at the airport for their nationals. The gates are unmanned and only require the nationals to scan their passports. The same service is commendably provided to expatriates working in the country, who can register for the service in advance making for faster processing of resident passengers. If you have never visited Rwanda, give it some consideration. It’s a rare part of black Africa that is visibly trying to get things right.