Creative Capitalism Part 3: Making a Difference in Rwanda

February 11, 2008

One of the best aspects of capitalism is that if you have the vision, the will, the capacity, the drive, and the chutzpah, you can create value anywhere. I sat in on a briefing yesterday where John Orrison, an assistant vice president at BNSF Railway, talked about creating a $1 billion railway to connect landlocked Rwanda to the African coast and global markets.

Rwanda is a country which is perhaps best known for the genocidal conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis, and where only one in 40 people even owns a bicycle, much less a car. With a per capita income of $1300, the people of Rwanda are largely dependent on subsistence agriculture.

And yet BNSF is forging ahead with the Rwanda/Tanzania rail corridor between Kigali and Dar es Salaam.  Largely following a path mapped out by the Germans more than 70 years ago, but never completed, BNSF believes that it can help open up the agricultural markets of Rwanda to the rest of the world. In doing this, BNSF (www.bnsf.com) is building on its heritage as the largest grain hauler in North America, and plans to draw on its expertise to help develop a world-class rail corridor in the middle of East Africa.

It’s not the kind of thing they can undertake alone. They are working with the presidents of Rwanda and Tanzania, trying to secure a loan from the World Bank, getting NGOs to work with farmers to modernize their systems so they can deliver the tonnage to the railroad, and with a host of other public, private, and non-profit partners as well.

Other companies and organizations are jumping into this impoverished country as well – Friends of Rwanda has attracted bankers, bicycle manufacturers, and one of the largest churches in the U.S. – the Saddleback Church out of California led by Rick Warren.  I talked with Christopher Crane, the CEO of Opportunity International and Dale Dawson, and they’ve set up the largest financial services company serving the poor in the country – with over 27,000 loans and 5,000 checking accounts already.  They reach many of their customers with trucks that look like traveling ATM machines – their story is truly remarkable for their spirit and their ingenuity.

What these stories illustrate is that in a way, all capitalist ideas are creative, in terms of that they are trying to create value where it didn’t exist before. Will these projects individually pull Rwanda out of poverty?  Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure – If they succeed, they will create opportunities that did not exist before, for a people who desperately need it.