"Having an inter-disciplinary research background has shaped me a lot and enabled me to understand the different perspectives on key policy issues".

March 28, 2019.  

Interview with Dr. Ildephonse Musafiri, ZEF alumnus, who is now Head of the Strategy and Policy Unit, Economic Cluster, at the Office of the President of Rwanda.

Ildephonse Musafiri is an economist from Rwanda. He did his doctoral research at ZEF from 2011 to 2014 and received a PhD for his dissertation on "The Determinants of Long-term growth in Smallholder Agriculture in Rwanda". He currently serves as Head of the Strategy and Policy Unit (SPU) at the Office of the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame.

What is your current position at the President’s Office and how did you get appointed?
About one and a half years after I finished my studies at ZEF I was teaching at the University of Rwanda when the government approached me and proposed that I take a senior position in the central government. In June 2016 I was appointed as Deputy Head of the Strategy and Policy Unit in charge of the Economic Cluster at the President’s Office. After two years, I was promoted to Head of the Unit. The Strategy and Policy Unit highlights issues in the government and follows-up on the President's priorities. We aim at identifying the best strategies to implement his visions. We also monitor and follow-up on cabinet actions and any other tasks directly assigned by the Head of State or the Director of Cabinet.

Which are the most important challenges for Rwanda today?
I think the challenges we face in Rwanda are similar to those of other developing countries. Rwanda’s main challenge is to boost its economic growth and human capital formation. Our people do not have sufficient advanced skills to cope with the current reality and pace of globalization. They need to be educated and trained. In addition, we have problems in the healthcare sector. We have to increase the number of health facilities and develop our human capacities to improve medical treatment. Human capital development is also reflected in productivity: people are not able to contribute to the maximum. Improved feeding practices and medical treatment in early childhood are urgent issues. We have therefore established a childhood development program which aims at taking care of children from the start, including nourishment and maternal health.

And what about socio-economic challenges and agricultural issues?
Rwanda’s agriculture is mostly small-scale and subsistence orientated, so most farmers just eat what they produce and do not have a surplus to sell to the market. We have to develop an agricultural sector which is more market-oriented. We are trying to attract the private sector to invest in agriculture and to introduce insurance schemes for providing protection from shocks. Because agricultural production heavily depends on the weather we are trying to find an alternative to purely rain-fed agriculture. Irrigation can help people to produce at a larger scale. Investment in post-harvest management, value addition and agricultural research and development will also be instrumental to bring our agriculture to the next level.

You have worked on information- and communication-technology (ICT) as part of ZEF’s research on digitalization and ICT development in developing countries. With regard to the challenges you talked about, do you think ICT could improve the situation?
Yes, definitely. In my research I assessed which role mobile phone use played in agricultural output and in household income in Rwanda. It was the time when everybody was being digitalized through mobile phones and I was interested to see if this digitalization could have a tangible effect. In the area I was looking at, people with mobile phones had higher incomes and higher agricultural output. Farmers in rural areas don’t have much access to mobile devices and to power to charge them. The belief is that ICT could be the enabler for everything, especially when it comes to agriculture. With these devices farmers can get market information, know about input and output as well as prices. We have even delivered a system where they can have access to fertilizers through a mobile application. They thus know how much they have taken and how much they bring in order to decide what they have or how much they need.

What about the role of mobile digital services beyond agricultural purposes?
Rwanda’s citizens have access to financial services through this mobile app too. Many people live in remote areas with few financial institutions yet the mobile service can be used for money transactions. They can save their money, or transfer it to make payments. This has dramatically changed the lives of Rwandans. I believe not only mobile phones but all ICT like drones or satellites can be used for imaging and to control the quality of crops, crop diseases, etc. ICT is thus a great job creator, also beyond the realm of agriculture. ICT and digitalization are a top priority On our present agenda. Rwanda has unrolled an optic fibre cable and the country is covered with about 90%. We believe that the future of Rwanda relies on ICT and the services derived from it. We believe ICT can change everything.

Who owns the (mobile) phone and telecommunications market in Rwanda?
We do not have government-owned telecommunication companies, the market Is completely in private hands. The service providers and the telecommunication companies are regulated by the government, but the two or three big providers for mobile and telecommunications services across the country work on a private basis. The state sets requirements and a regulatory framework, of course, but does not interfere in the market.

Rwanda is a landlocked country and trade is an important question. Your President has taken a leading role in implementing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Do you think there is a chance to have free trade in Africa?
Last year, when our President was the chairman of the African Union, we signed the agreement in Kigali for the African Continental Free Trade Area. We considered that at least 22 countries have to ratify the agreement for it to become implementable. Some countries are still in the process of ratifying, and the chances are high that we’ll soon reach the required number of countries, and then the Area will become effective. For the first time since the inception of the African Union a continental free trade zone has become tangible.

How can Rwanda benefit from the AfCFTA?
The starting point of the whole process was the ridiculous situation that trade taxes or import and export duties within Africa were higher than with Europe or other countries. If the Free Trade Area is created, this would more than double our area’s trade traffic. If we have a 50 percent increase in trade, every country benefits, especially Rwanda because, as you said, we are a landlocked country.
We have some success stories within the East African region, where we have already established a free-trade and free-movement of people community with our neighbors Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi. We want to expand this to the whole of Africa, which is a huge market of more than 1 billion people. Imagine one market and all people trading with each other. My personal view is that Africa has definitely woken up.

So what is Rwanda's main economic problem at the moment?
One major problem for Rwanda’s economy is the trade imbalance. We import more goods than we export. Yet, being landlocked complicates the situation. That is why we introduced policies like “Made in Rwanda”. We want to make sure we create incentives for manufacturers to produce in Rwanda so that we can increase our export revenues. The problem is the low level of private-sector activities, which is not only a problem for business investment, but also results in slow job creation. The AfCFTA will hopefully attract the private sector to invest in every way it wants, with the opportunity to sell its products where it wants and to produce wherever it wants, given the conditions of the markets they find in each country. Employment generation through trade will tackle our high rate of unemployment. That’s why we need a better economic infrastructure to attract investors.

What is Rwanda’s Vision 2020 and how did it contribute to the development of the country?
People should understand where the country stands today. We formed the Vision 2020 plan in the year 2000. People were thinking about what we want to achieve in 20 years, where we wanted to be. Vision 2020 had six pillars. Pillar one was good governance and a capable state. The second pillar was human resources development and a knowledge-based economy. The third was private sector development. Fourth was about infrastructure, the fifth about agricultural transformation, and the sixth was regional integration. We also had some cross-cutting issues such as gender, youth, information and communication technologies, and environment. Some things went well and others have only half worked.

So you see a positive development here?
But my country is only 25 years old. Over 25 years we’ve made tremendous progress and seen great achievements. We have strong institutions, we have good governance in Rwanda, and we’ve managed to achieve universal primary education. We have worked against gender disparity all over the country. We have a number of women in parliament and in the cabinet. So this has been very successful. Above all, we’ve managed to sustain an average growth rate above 7% over the past two decades and have halved absolute poverty.

Rwanda has gained international attention by successfully banning all plastic bags…
Yes. This is our initiative. Europe and other countries try to follow us in banning all plastic bags. We achieved it although people didn’t believe that it would be possible. Protecting the environment was also embedded in Vision 2020.

So what comes after Vision 2020?
Now we are thinking of Vision 2050 with even stronger ambitions. We have the first National Strategy for Transformation (NST1) which is a seven-year program from 2018 to 2024. What we want to do in this program is to get right all the fundamentals in health, education agriculture, urbanization, trade and regional integration, competitiveness and enterprise development as well as accountable and capable institutions. The present goal is to reach at least $4000 of GDP per capita by 2035 – that would make Rwanda an upper middle income country – and to become a high-income country by 2050. We think big to fulfill our development vision. The country is moving with the times and now we have to make sure we take off and maybe one day become like Germany.

We guess your work as a researcher and teacher is much different from that of an adviser at the policy level. How do you benefit from your research background in your position?
As head of the Strategy and Policy Unit I advise across economic, social and governance matters. I found that multi-disciplinary thinking, which is of course one of ZEF’s core ideas, is an important requirement for this kind of high-level policy advisory work. Having an inter-disciplinary research background has shaped me a lot and enabled me to understand the different perspectives on key policy issues. So certainly as a researcher one can understand processes, facilitate and use evidence in policy formulation, and convince people of the relevance of evidenced policy making. However, above all the learning attitude matters in bridging the gap between academic theory and practice. In this kind of job, I take advantage to learn from others with more experience. Particularly, I have a wonderful boss, the President, and a smart and experienced Director of Cabinet who makes my job enjoyable.


Dr. Musafiri, thank you very much for the interview.


The interview was conducted by Lukas Kornher and Alma van der Veen (both from ZEF).


Dr. Lukas Kornher