Economic Zones

Rwanda: Economic Development through Special Economic Zones, an Adrianople Group Report

Adrianople Group's visit to Rwanda showed us why the small African nation is being hailed as the "Singapore of Africa".


Adrianople Group visited the country of Rwanda in October 2019, met with the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), and toured two of the country’s budding Special Economic Zone projects. The following report is an overview of our field research in Rwanda and an attempt to provide a firsthand account of both the opportunities and challenges associated with the country’s development.

Mara Group is one of Africa’s largest conglomerates. Source:

On October 7th, 2019 the very first smartphone manufacturing plant on the African continent began operations. This new facility, operated by a subsidiary of Mara Group, sources all of its materials from around Africa, and manufactures the phones from the motherboards all the way to the packaging. Despite the gravity of this development and it’s pan-African significance, the factory is not set up in a large city such as Johannesburg, Lagos, or Nairobi. Instead, Africa’s first full smartphone plant was built in Rwanda, within the Kigali Special Economic Zone. [1] [2] [3]

In Africa’s larger and more established cities, tech companies like Google and Oracle have already crowded the market. By choosing to locate within the Kigali SEZ, Mara Group strategically enters as a close partner of the host nation and its President, Paul Kagame. In Rwanda, Mara sees a chance to make a greater impact and shape its own destiny. [4]

Rwanda’s Development Profile & History

Rwanda’s ambitious planning, experimentation, and implementation appears to have paid off.

The country of Rwanda has built an impressive profile for itself over the past two decades. A mostly agrarian country of approximately 12 million people, Rwanda is making a noticeable effort to optimize its governance in order to spur socioeconomic growth. Since 2000, the Rwandan government has set high goals for the entire country to pursue. [5]

In order to support this vision, the state has continued to tweak the laws and regulations of the country as they relate to developing infrastructure, doing business, acquiring education, and more.  As mentioned in a prior Adrianople Group article, this approach is outlined in a series of national growth strategies, such as Vision 2020, Vision 2050, and the National Strategy for Transformation. Their overall goal is to reconstruct Rwanda into a middle income economy as quickly as possible. [6] [7] [8]

As of 2019, the country has experienced a significant transformation in terms of economic development. Key indicators of this include averaging around 5% GDP per capita growth per year since 2006 (the entire economy grew by 8.6% in 2018), the growth and diversification of industrial and service sectors, infrastructure development and urbanization, as well as access to healthcare and financial institutions. [9] [10]

According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business indicators, Rwanda has quickly jumped to the 29th in the world, with Mauritius being the only African country with a higher ranking. As a comparison, Rwanda’s Ease of Doing Business score surpasses that of highly developed countries such as Japan and Switzerland. Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s longtime president, has gone on record to say that he wishes Rwanda to become the “Singapore of Africa”, a stable gateway of trade for the entire continent. [11]

The speed and consistency of Rwanda’s growth is undeniably impressive, especially for a landlocked Central African nation. Still, it is important to note that serious barriers continue to impede Rwanda’s construction of a knowledge-based, middle income economy. 

These include significant poverty, urban infrastructure/transportation restrictions, a relatively small private sector, an over-reliance on agriculture, and geographic trade difficulties, among others. Despite these issues, the following report will show that Rwanda is one of the most unique examples of sustained economic development on the African continent.

Despite the size and complexity of these problems, they are not considered systemic, and notable steps have been taken in their resolution.

National Overhaul

During Adrianople’s visit to Kigali, we met with the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) to explore the business reforms they have installed and to assess their ongoing SEZ projects. The RDB was installed in 2009 to administer the country’s business regulations, foreign investments, tourism promotion, environmental conservation, and overall development planning. The business regulatory environment of Rwanda is directly affected by the actions of the RDB. In general, we were looking to assess the quality of the services provided by the Board, to observe the extent to which those services are being utilized, and to chart the effects of their administration on the economic development of Rwanda. 

The core function of the RDB is to operate as a “one stop shop” for all of Rwanda’s business procedures, both inside and outside of the SEZs. If you want to register a company, obtain a visa or work permit, or apply for land within an SEZ, you must go through the RDB. Since its inception, the Board appears to have focused heavily on streamlining these regulatory procedures for ease of use. Links to a more extensive account of RDB’s services can be found here and here. [12]

Our time in-country allowed us to speak with several business owners, some of whom are foreigners who chose to set up their companies in Rwanda after hearing about the country’s stability, streamlined business practices, and economic growth. The general consensus regarding their interactions with the RDB was positive, particularly in regards to the speed, transparency, and consistency of the regulatory procedures.

The streamlined regulatory framework and administrative services offered via the RDB form the core of Rwanda’s efforts to attract foreign investment and build a more stable private sector. Additional to these efforts are the construction and facilitation of special economic zones (SEZs) across the country, which aim to provide superior access to quality infrastructure and utilities. [13]

SEZ Experiments

Pictured: The map of SEZs in Rwanda, active and planned. Bugesera and Kigali are the only zones with any infrastructure or activity. Source:

The history of SEZs as a development tool in Africa is more often a cautionary tale rather than a success story. Success stories include the 1970s move toward export processing zones in the Mauritian economy, the Tangier free zone, and very few others. However, Rwanda is attempting to remedy this through the development of their own SEZ program, a key component of the country’s Vision 2020/2050 strategy. [14] [15] [16]

The Kigali Special Economic Zone (KSEZ) has proven to be a competitive model, and zones are being planned throughout Rwanda that would attempt to capture the same level of development that the KSEZ has brought to the nation’s capital. Worthy to note is that most of the FDI in KSEZ comes from businesses inside of Africa (South Africa, Morocco, and Kenya especially), with only incidental investments originating from France, India, and Brazil. [17] [18] [19] [20] [21]

The regulations concerning Rwanda’s SEZs, valid since 2011, originally specified that foreign stakeholders could not own the land within Rwanda’s SEZs, whereas local ones could buy it for full ownership. However, the regulations were revised in early 2018 to allow for long term leasing, for terms no longer than 99 years. [22]

Kigali Special Economic Zone

The SEZ program in Rwanda began with the drafting of the 2011 SEZ law in Rwanda, which provided a framework for the creation of SEZs within the country. Just northeast of the Kigali International Airport, construction began on the KSEZ in mid-2012 and concluded by the summer of 2013. [23]

As it stands, the first phase of the KSEZ covers 98 hectares and is occupied by 97 different firms who employ over 12,000 employees. The key value provided to tenants within the zone is not only tax incentives, but rather stable hard infrastructure: quality roads, electricity, fiber-optic internet, clean water, sewage treatment, and fire services. This government-supported infrastructure comes standard within the zone, distinguishing it from most of the rest of the country.

Adrianople Group has previously written about the Kigali Special Economic Zone:

The zone is operated as a public-private partnership in cooperation with Prime Economic Zones, a Rwandan firm designated as the operator of KSEZ. After signing a contract with PEZ, zone tenants submit designs through templates provided by PEZ.  After submission, the investor’s project has to be examined and approved by the Special Economic Zone Authority of Rwanda (SEZAR) before being granted a construction permit. SEZAR is housed within the overall authority of the RDB.

It is PEZ that (indirectly) cares for the security, infrastructure, and utility aspects of the zone, as well as gathering data and reporting it to the SEZAR, with the long-term goal of optimizing SEZ regulations in order to maximize efficiency. 

Pictured: The first sight upon entering the KSEZ. Most PEZ operations take place within the zone, only incidentally off-site at the RDB headquarters.

SEZ law was revised in 2018, in order to streamline regulations and generate more involvement from the private sector, both foreign and domestic. The leasing system was changed so that foreigners may engage in 99-year leases. Additionally, tax advantages were reduced, with the RDB refocusing its efforts the streamlining of permit acquisition, and a one-stop-shop approach to all compliance matters within the zone. Special tax consideration is offered, however, to developers and tenants that have been designated as instrumental to Rwanda’s 2020 and 2017 - 2024 growth plans. [24]

Pictured: A local security firm’s offices. Despite its simple appearance, the value provided by the KSEZ’s infrastructure is integral to the zone’s success.

The zone is surrounded on all sides by an agricultural buffer zone containing macadamia orchards, and roads are well-maintained. Materials into the zone and products out of the zone travel by road, usually to and from the ports of Dar es Salaam or Mombasa. Shipping arrives by container-truck, as seen below.

Pictured: A shipping container arrives from Mombasa to the zone for unloading.

The subject of logistics is particularly important to the Kigali SEZ. To compare, shipping a 20 foot container from Shanghai (China) to Mombasa (Kenya) costs between $500 and $1000. Transporting that same container from Mombasa to Kigali (the truck pictured above) costs between $3000 and $4000. There are steps already being taken to mitigate this discrepancy. [25]

With improving Rwanda’s ease of doing business as its core goal, the (KSEZ) has proven to be a competitive model, and is currently expanding to include another 178 ha. As a result, new SEZs are being planned throughout Rwanda that will attempt to promote the same level of infrastructure development and private sector growth that the KSEZ has brought to the nation’s capital. As such, it is likely that the RDB will attempt to use the KSEZ as a template for these proposed SEZ projects, focusing on employing local talent, resources, and infrastructure. Each of these new zones will be close to urban centers and will have a combined surface area of almost 800 ha. [26] [27]

Volkswagen (VW) Rwanda

In addition to building up the country’s manufacturing base and growing its export potential, Rwanda’s SEZ strategy aims to support the long-term growth of a knowledge-based service sector. The RDB has pursued this goal by fostering a culture of innovation and attracting companies that are interested in Rwanda’s growing economy as a testbed for new technology. 

In early 2018, the international auto giant Volkswagen expanded into Rwanda with a $20 million production plant. According to the company, the facility has the capacity for 5000 vehicles per year, and employs 1000 persons. The vehicles are distributed by CFAO motors, and the plant operator, Volkswagen Mobility Solutions Rwanda, is a subsidiary of Volkswagen Group South Africa. [28]

Pictured: VW’s production plant and dealership in the Kigali SEZ.

The “Mobility Solutions” designation forms a large part of VW’s plans to use Rwanda as a laboratory for its newest technologies. Rwanda’s VW branch was set up to support the creation of an integrated end-to-end mobility service package, rather than just the production and sale of vehicles. The most interesting example of this approach is VW Move, a ride-sharing smartphone application launched by VW Rwanda, which currently has over 20,000 downloads within the country. In effect, VW is attaching itself to Rwanda’s growing reputation as a platform for innovation by testing out the bugs in its app in Kigali. Once their technology is thoroughly tested, they can then use Rwanda as a launchpad to bring its solutions to the rest of the world. [29] [30]

Pictured: VW Move’s promotional materials regarding the app’s use.

The app segues into several different products: kids’ transport, logistics services, car insurance, a market for VW parts and services, car sharing, ride-hopping and others are either provided or planned. The app infrastructure includes around 30 vehicles driven in 2 shifts by 70 drivers, and expansions are being planned. [31]

Mara Phones

Another notable tenant located within the KSEZ is, as mentioned at the beginning of the report, Mara Phones. Mara Phones is a subsidiary of the Mara Group conglomerate. It focuses on the manufacture of mid-range mobile devices whose entire value chain is contained within Africa in general and Rwanda in particular. 

Its placement within the KSEZ is notable insofar as it represents a first for all of Africa. The RDB and local residents alike are hopeful that the Mara Phones factory represents a promising sign for not only Rwanda’s SEZ program, but for the country as a whole. The Bank of Kigali provided Mara Group with a $50 million line of credit for the creation of the factory. [32]

Pictured: Mara Phones’ facility in the SEZ started manufacturing on October 9, 2019. 

Downtown Kigali is currently the only physical location where Mara Phone products (Mara X and Mara Z) can be purchased. Mara Group is currently in negotiations with partners in Kenya, Angola and South Africa with plans to expand their retail capabilities.

The affordability of the devices is high enough that one month’s average salary can provide one with the basic Mara X model, which opens opportunities to education and business. This means that communities can quickly save up for a device and use it as capital equipment to enrich those close to them. [33]

The Kigali Special Economic Zone is currently serving as an example of a zone that enriches the communities around it both directly (through the jobs provided by the zone) as well as systemically, through providing tools such as affordable smartphones to the local population. To expand on the systemic improvements of the zone, the Kigali Innovation City was proposed.

Kigali Innovation City

In addition to building up the country’s manufacturing base and growing its export potential, Rwanda’s SEZ strategy aims to support the long-term growth of a knowledge-based service sector.

In November 2018, the doors to Carnegie Mellon University’s newest facility on the African continent opened in Kigali, Rwanda for the first time. This happened in conjunction with the Kigali Innovation City (KIC) project: an ICT-specialized area within the Kigali SEZ’s second phase. 

The KIC is a 70-hectare, $2 billion project to kick-start the region’s competitiveness in the digital service sector. As a cornerstone of this project, a facility has been constructed for the Carnegie Mellon University that overlooks the Kigali SEZ.

Pictured: The Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) building’s rear view

CMU Africa’s Kigali campus has a capacity of 300 students, who can choose a master’s studies program in either information technology or electrical and computer engineering. Adrianople Group interviewed a Zimbabwean student who is a part of MSIT program, supported by a MasterCard scholarship which has over $10 million committed. [34]

Pictured: MasterCard senior management pose in front of the campus under construction. MasterCard is a major partner in CMU’s African presence.

The total cost of the KIC, as mentioned above, is projected to be approximately $2 billion. $400 million has already been pledged by infrastructure investment group Africa50 at the Africa Investment Forum in Johannesburg, in November 2018. This development fits neatly into the government's Vision 2020/2050 programs, including the National Strategy for Transformation. [35]

Pictured: The common areas of Carnegie Mellon.

Parties interested in moving into the KIC include the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences, and the African Leadership University. The KIC will also house the Digital Innovation Precinct (DIP): a non-academic tech hub focusing on digital technology, ICT and similar service-oriented areas. The only known tenant for the DIP is Kenyan-based digital marketing firm Kwetu. [36]

Currently, the only activity in the KIC is performed by the Carnegie Mellon campus - all other plots are undergoing infrastructural development. No construction permits have been issued as of October 10th 2019, and there is still extensive agriculture taking place in the area, performed by local residents.

Pictured: adjacent plots to the visible CMU campus are still under development

Silicon Valley in Rwanda

Rwanda's business environment has shown some success in attracting cutting-edge companies from the San Francisco Bay area. With a previous launch in Ghana, Zipline is a drone-delivery service that primarily focuses on delivering medical supplies, including blood, rabies vaccines and antivenom, to  hard-to-reach health clinics in Rwanda and Ghana.

They successfully raised their company valuation to $1.2 billion, earning them "Unicorn" status - a company worth over $1 billion that is privately owned and less than a few years old. [41]

The below video explains the story of Zipline in Rwanda:

Kigali DP World Dry-Port

Outside of the KSEZ, DP World, a Dubai-based port infrastructure developer and operator, has set up in an inland dry port in Rwanda. An agreement was reached in November 2018 for the construction of a logistics center to the south-east of the Kigali airport, outside of the Kigali SEZ. The facility has been operational since June 2019. In terms of services, the facility provides container handling, stuffing and de-stuffing, warehousing, storage, and other logistics needs. The transport capacity for the dry port stands at 50,000 TEUs per year, and can hold 600,000 metric tons of cargo at a time. [37] [38]

Pictured: Parked vehicles with 20ft shipping containers. Waiting fees are $150-$200 per day.

The plan is to reduce logistics prices by providing a one-stop-shop for transport and warehousing services. The savings are meant to be shifted to the consumer, but the service will also be improved by a planned standard-gauge railway from Kigali to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, as well as a digital logistics services solution that will streamline the process. [39]

Results of Kigali SEZ & Future Plans

Assuming no change in the growth rate increase or income distribution, it is likely that Rwanda can all but eliminate extreme poverty (those spending less than $1.90 PPP a day) between 2035 and 2040. The KSEZ is by no means the only driving force behind this growth, but the role of the zone in facilitating foreign investment was notable during Adrianople’s visit.

Other than creating jobs and attracting investment into the country, one of the main reasons for the creation of the KSEZ is the rise of Rwanda’s real effective exchange rate (REER), which had a major drop in the 2007-2009 period. This meant a trade deficit and less purchasing power for Rwandans - which the exports generated by the KSEZ were designed to remedy.

Rwanda’s government has laid out plans for 9 additional SEZs, together with the completion of phase 2 of the Kigali SEZ. It is likely that the RDB will attempt to replicate the KSEZ model with these proposed SEZ projects, focusing on employing local talent, resources and infrastructure. Each of these zones will be close to urban centers and will have a combined surface area of almost 800 ha. This doesn’t count the KSEZ, which has an area of 98 ha in phase 1 and 178 in phase 2. The largest of these new zones, Bugesera zone, has an area of 330 ha for development. [40]

Bugesera Special Economic Zone

Bugesera SEZ is currently undergoing development, located to the south of Kigali in the Eastern Province, Bugesera district. It is south-east to the town of Nyamata (pop. 35,000), and the key development for this zone is the country’s second international airport: Bugesera airport which has been under construction since 2017.

The zone will focus on heavier sectors than the KSEZ: Adrianople Group's in-person surveying of the zone showed construction taking place for a steel manufacturer, lead smelting facility, and fertilizer production area. A water purification mechanism is also being constructed for the needs of the zone - 26,000 cubic meters per day is the planned capacity.

Although the zone has been undergoing various phases of study and development since 2015, no businesses are currently operating out of the zone: the area has no effective water, internet or sewage infrastructure. It is of key importance to include more of the private sector in the zone’s development, as the zone currently is not functional. [26]

Pictured: Road and power infrastructure leading to the future site of a corrugated steel manufacturer in the Bugesera zone.

Among the potential advantages to be potentially offered by the zone, the most notable are the proximity and 8km direct road to the (still under construction) Bugesera International Airport and notable price advantage compared to the Kigali SEZ: one square meter in Kigali’s SEZ comes in at $50, whereas the Bugesera zone (due to various factors) will be only $10 per square meter.

Although Bugesera is a promising area with several strengths, it is important to note that the zone is almost 4 years in the making and the current status of development does not seem to reflect that. The physical infrastructure of the zone is being carried out by the NPD, TECOS Ltd. and ROKO Construction. 

Pictured: in the middle distance, the area designated for phase 2 of the Bugesera zone leads to the site of the future Bugesera International Airport.

We mention the physical infrastructure primarily because Rwanda’s SEZs (Bugesera in particular) focus on industrial and manufacturing sectors which are infrastructure and logistics-heavy. The success of a zone specializing in these sectors depends almost entirely on the competitiveness of the infrastructure.

Pictured: upgrades from a single-lane carriageway to a two-lane expressway are being undertaken on the RN15 motorway, with presence from the China Road Engineering Corporation

The Bugesera zone is also notably distant from the largest population center of the country - this means that the infrastructure to ferry material and goods to and from the zone to the larger markets elsewhere in the country are of high priority. MININFRA (Rwanda’s Ministry of Infrastructure) has, however, taken this into account and has begun motorway expansion projects between the town of Nyamata and Kigali city.


Rwanda’s path to developing into a knowledge-based, middle-income economy is far from over. The country continues to suffer from serious economic roadblocks, not the least of which include geographic limitations, infrastructure constraints, and widespread poverty, to name a few. However, the economic development efforts of the Rwandan government have produced undeniably admirable results so far. 

Rwanda’s focus on providing necessary infrastructure and improving the ease of doing business has spurred vital growth, especially when combined within the one-stop-shop ecosystem of the KSEZ.  If Rwanda’s future business reforms and SEZ projects are able to promote a similar degree of investment and development, the central African country is well on its way to achieving the goals outlined in its flagship Vision 2050 strategy.