By Zixin (Harry) Wang, MPA/ID student
“I know I could get much more money from other jobs, but I came back to serve my country.”
This sentiment echoed strongly among my colleagues at the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), where I interned during the summer of 2023. Despite having the qualifications and experience to secure lucrative positions in the private sector, my colleagues consciously chose a path of public service.
RDB is not just another government agency; it acts like a catalyst, a bridge and sometimes even a disrupter, all aiming for Rwanda's economic transformation. With a broad mandate to "accelerate Rwanda's economic development by enabling private sector growth," it is a hub of activity, engagement and innovation. It amalgamates functions related to export, investment, tourism, SMEs, and skills training under one roof—a modern building adorned with dark blue glass that reflects its transparency and depth.
One of my most impactful projects was facilitating Rwandan exporters' integration into Alibaba.com, a global leader in B2B online trading. This initiative was born out of a high-level agreement between Rwanda's President Paul Kagame and Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, back in 2018. The project required meticulous coordination among Alibaba, RDB, and a host of Rwandan SMEs either experienced in or interested in cross-border e-commerce. Alongside my colleagues, we navigated a complex web of stakeholders, from many coffee and tea exporters to various ministries and the National Post Office, to ensure the project's success.
What has left an indelible impression on me is RDB's holistic approach to problem-solving. The agency does not just set empty goals; it actively seeks solutions, even for every individual company that comes to the agency. At RDB, I connected a local coffee wholesaler with several potential buyers from China, designed a marketing strategy for a local garment maker, helped a local e-commerce entrepreneur find more truck drivers, and even tried to help a paper manufacturer solve its water supply issue. All of RDB’s work has fostered a climate of trust and collaboration between RDB and the Rwandan business community. Consequently, the name "RDB" has become a hallmark of reliability and efficiency.
RDB stands as a beacon of international collaboration and open-mindedness. The agency is a melting pot of diverse talents, hosting consultants, economists, and interns from countries as varied as the United States, the UK, China, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. Together, they collaborate with Rwandan professionals on a multitude of projects, ranging from investment promotion and deal acceleration to export strategy and legal advisories. This diversity not only enriches RDB's internal culture but also extends its global network, as the agency continually seeks to forge partnerships with international development organizations and private enterprises. During my internship, I found my Rwandan colleagues to be genuinely interested in my background, my academic journey at Harvard, and my insights into Rwanda's economic future. They graciously offered me opportunities to attend key conferences and even provided guided tours of Rwanda's Special Economic Zones, inviting my observations and recommendations.
Living in Kigali, particularly in expatriate residential areas, it's easy to forget that Rwanda remains a developing nation. The pristine roads, luxurious hotels, and scenic landscapes mask the underlying challenges. Rwanda is primarily an agricultural society, grappling with issues like landlocked geography and limited access to mineral resources.
My colleagues at RDB are acutely aware of these challenges, and it's this awareness that fuels the agency's remarkable agility. The team at RDB is relentless in its pursuit of progress, exploring every avenue to propel the nation forward. Whether it's promoting sports tourism despite spatial constraints, developing agro-processing strategies with limited resources, or advancing e-commerce in an immature market, the ethos is one of boundless possibility. Initially, the multitude of development initiatives seemed overwhelming and disorganized, but over time, I came to admire the spirit of relentless innovation and rapid adaptation that pervades RDB.
My time in Rwanda also prompted me to reflect on the development trajectory of my home country, China. The elements of dynamism, openness, and agility that I've witnessed at RDB resonate with my own experiences growing up in China. Conversations with Rwandans invariably reveal a deep sense of pride in their country's achievements and an optimistic outlook for the future. Known as "the land of a thousand hills," Rwanda is increasingly becoming a land of a thousand dreams. It is my heartfelt wish that each of these dreams finds its path to realization soon.
Zixin (Harry) is pursuing an MPA in international development at Harvard Kennedy School with a focus in human capital development and private sector investment. Prior to HKS, he worked at the Office of United Nations Resident Coordinator in China as a coordination analyst. Harry researched how e-commerce transformed rural China when he was a Schwarzman Scholar and Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum.
Read about other intern experiences at Rwanda Development Board.
Zixin (Harry) Wang