By Angela Pérez Albertos

group of people seated around a table
Ángela Pérez Albertos (back right) and colleagues in Kigali, Rwanda.

Nestled in the heart of East Africa, Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, is a city that defies expectations. As I walked alone at night, up and down the land of the ‘Thousand Hills’, I was immediately captivated by its tranquillity, safety, and order. Its pristine, newly built roads, lack of traffic congestion or heavy noise pollution were a stark contrast to the bustling chaos of other African cities I had previously visited. The scene provided a unique backdrop that mirrored the country’s vision. Rwanda’s ambition is to transition into a middle-income country by 2035, a vision that requires the country to increase its GDP per capita from its current level of US$1,000 to +$4,000 by 2035. Even if the country has managed to consistently experience high economic growth rates in the past decades, Rwanda’s ambition verges on the miraculous.

I wanted to understand how a government could propel a nation out of poverty and Rwanda was a natural fit. This led me to intern at Growth Teams, a non-profit founded by Harvard Kennedy School MPA/ID alumni that was advising the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) on growth matters. Specifically, the efforts of RDB to attract foreign direct investment, create jobs, and encourage exports offered a promising learning ground for me. I lived in Singapore in the past and witnessed the outcome of what public leaders with a vision can do to chart the destiny of a nation, inspiring me to embark in extensive literature review on the topic. However, reading about it or living in a “transformed” country is only scratching the surface. To feel responsible for the economic development of a country is to stand in awe of the audacity and vision of its public leaders.

woman at sunset in rural setting
Ángela Pérez Albertos exploring Mount Kigali.

During my internship, I was embedded in the Deal Accelerator team within RDB, focused on identifying opportunities and constraints in the food processing industry. Because African countries export mostly raw agricultural products, UNCTAD estimates that agro processing is a missed opportunity valued at $1.8bn in exports in the African Continental Free Trade Area. My role was to analyze a myriad of factors – trade dynamics, labour intensity, profitability metrics, processing potential and more – to unearth attractive prospects. Once I derived a set of insights from the data, I conducted over 20 interviews with diverse stakeholders in the ecosystem, ranging from local entrepreneurs to international investors. These interactions painted a vivid picture of the industry’s challenges and opportunities, equipping me to craft informed recommendations.

One of the most profound lessons of my internship came when it was time to formulate policy recommendations. Identifying growth opportunities within food processing had been straightforward; but deciphering the government’s role in catalyzing growth was a much more complex task. I found myself asking the following questions:

  • If an opportunity was identified in a sector (say, fruit drying), but there were no private actors already playing in the sector, how could we confirm that the current lack of private sector investment was due to information frictions, creating room for government action?
  • Even if we agreed there was potential for growth in a sector, what should the government do about it?
  • What tools should it deploy to catalyze private sector action while avoiding rent seeking or having to ‘pick winners’?
  • Were fiscal investment incentives worth ‘losing government revenue’ considering there is research revealing they do not move the needle for international investors?
  • How could we add more value in our recommendations than what other dozen reports had already called for (e.g. support farmers with training, invest in small and medium-sized enterprise capability building, develop innovative financing schemes for entrepreneurs to access funding…)?

The lessons we studied in MPA/ID courses suddenly echoed in my mind and crystallized the value of our class discussions. At the same time, the real-world dilemmas and trade-offs faced by policymakers were a sobering reminder that theory must often bow to the intricacies of implementation.

A breakthrough emerged as we were immersed in this challenge. While we debated what our policy recommendations should be, it became increasingly obvious that our impact would come from advocating for the recognition of food processing as a distinct industry within RDB's scope. Food processing was previously treated as an extension of primary agriculture, which meant that its unique dynamics were not being adequately recognized. For example, an agricultural crop like maize or rice is not attractive from a raw exports perspective, but has much potential from a processed exports perspective given the multiple value-adding opportunities in the value chain. On the contrary, a crop like avocado is very attractive from a raw exports perspective, but has limited processing potential. RDB’s processes and systems were biased towards raw exports, which was preventing the recognition of valuable opportunities. Encouraging the design of targeted, tailored strategies in agro processing absorbed the bulk of my efforts towards the last sprint of my internship. In doing so, I realized that the true value in advising policymakers often extends beyond the policy recommendations themselves; it lies in altering viewpoints, adjusting priorities, and disrupting ingrained routines.

group of people having dinner
Farewell dinner for Ángela Pérez Albertos and other interns in Kigali, Rwanda.

As I bade farewell to my team, their parting words lingered – an earnest request to champion Rwanda's cause. Their plea to become an evangelist for the nation's future reverberated and I became conscious of my transient presence. My colleagues, unlike external advisors like me, faced the challenge of developing their country beyond the confines of a single summer. My internship was an immersive exploration of how leadership, vision, and steadfast dedication play a much bigger role than analysis in the pursuit of a more prosperous future. It was also a tough, direct confrontation with the question of how external advisors can add value, remain humble, and demonstrate unwavering commitment to the cause of a foreign country. As I return to the halls of Harvard Kennedy School, I will forever remain tethered to the intricate threads of Rwanda’s narrative, a narrative that pulsates with courage, vision, and the promise of a brighter tomorrow.

Ángela Pérez Albertos is a second year MPA in International Development student at Harvard Kennedy School. Her focus lays at the intersection of education, labor markets and innovation. She is the second year MPA/ID Class Representative, Co-Chair of the Spanish Caucus, Committee member of the Education PIC and a Course Assistant to Prof. Dan Levy in the class Advanced Quantitative Methods I: Statistics. 


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Ángela Pérez Albertos

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