Rwanda sets standards to raise exports and prosperity

February 26, 2014

Rwanda sets standards to raise exports and prosperity

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It looks like a secret still making illegal alcohol. It’s tucked away in a hidden fold of Rwanda’s rolling hills, a long and bumpy 150km from the Rwanda capital, Kigali.

A brush fire bubbles under a vat. A bewildering network of pipes channel the steam to holding vessels, where mysterious liquid condenses. The raw materials of dried leaves is stacked around the site, awaiting immersion and transformation.

But the smell that comes off this apparatus isn’t the chemistry of grain meeting yeast and sugar to ferment liquor. It’s a pleasant perfume and could be the sweet smell of success for its owners, and for the Rwanda government’s drive to export high quality products.
Ikirezi, a manufacturer of essential oils such as geranium and patchouli, operates the plant. And it could be one of the companies to benefit from Rwanda’s determination to set high standards that will be accepted on local and international markets.

“We want to be a model of high standards,” says Rwanda Bureau of Standards (RBS) Director-General Mark Cyubahiro Bagabe. “We want to help the East African Community improve the quality of their products to access international markets.”

Rwanda wants to be the Switzerland of Africa,” explains TradeMark East Africa (TMEA) Country Director Mark Priestley. “To do that, you need to compete on quality, not volume, and to do that you need trust, and testing goods and applying standards is all about trust.”

The government has adopted measures for a market-oriented economy supported by increases in industrial and agricultural productivity, value addition and export promotion. Rwanda’s economy has been growing at annual average of 7% for the past five years.

But one of the major challenges is a growing trade deficit and the limited number of competitive companies that can meet regional and international standards for export.

Under a programme funded by TradeMark East Africa (TMEA), Rwanda’s Bureau of Standards (RBS) is upgrading the way it tests and certifies products in a government campaign to export high-quality goods to the East African Community (EAC), Europe and America.

TradeMark East Africa (TMEA) has funded the purchase of the latest hi-tech equipment that will check the purity of Rwanda’s key coffee exports for myco-toxins and essential oils for their purity. It has also twinned RBS with the British Standards Institute (BSI) to strengthen quality infrastructure and facilitate Rwanda businesses to export through mentoring and training.

The programme wraps training, a communications programme aimed at the private sector to win its buy-in, as well as the gleaming new machines in the RBS Kigali labs into an approach, to cut the time it takes to test Rwanda’s products from 60 when testing is sub-contracted to 6 days when done at RBS, and to make Kigali a regional hub for other countries to get their goods certified.

Rwanda had in the past to get its coffee, a vital export, certified in Uganda or somewhere else. Ikirezi gets its oils tested for purity in America. We want the testing done here for a variety of goods so that the RBS stamp is synonymous with high quality,” says Bagabe. It already is. Inyange bottled water appears at the seat of every conference participant and appears from government officials’ desks as a welcoming drink everywhere you go in Rwanda.

“But Inyange sells really well in Uganda, because Ugandans trust the RBS seal on it more than they do rival brands,” says Priestley.

Nicholas Hitimana, head of Ikirezi, says certification of his Lemon Grass or Patchouli oils is currently done at Rutgers University in America and takes up to a month. “But it could be done in Kigali in a day, giving us the scope to expand a lot.”

Ikirezi already has several natural advantages – the crops have the highest return per hectare in Rwanda and the climate means smallholders can grow the leaves year-round, unlike its main rival, South Africa, which can produce only two crops per year.

Ikirezi mixes social responsibility with the search for profit, buying the leaves to help orphans and widows of the 1994 genocide. In 2010, the company generated 350kg of organic geranium oil at a price of $185/kg and 400kg of organic Lemon Grass oil at $30/kg.

Agriculture accounts for around 40% of Rwanda’s Gross Domestic Product, hence the government’s focus on standards as a lever towards more exports. RBS and TradeMark East Africa (TMEA) have brought in experts from the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system to help Rwandan exporters get their products accepted internationally.

The idea was to bring together 24 Small and Medium food producers to explain the system’s application and benefits and help Rwanda export more food products.

It could help export to distant markets, but is of equal if not more value in the integration of the EAC economies, where goods are often rejected for failing to meet standards, raising criticism that far from integrating, member states are highly protectionist.

“It could be the start of something big with Rwanda showing the way,” says Priestley. “Countries getting their products rejected at the border for failing to meet standards is one of the biggest Non-Tariff Barriers to trade in the EAC today. This programme is all about getting EAC members to recognize and accept each other’s imports and standards.”

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