It is one of the smallest countries in Africa with a total area estimated at around 26,000km² and a population of roughly 12 million people. You can drive across its winding, smoothly paved roads in a matter of hours.

But Rwanda, a mountainous country known locally as le Mille Collines – the land of a thousand hills – punches well above its weight: it is one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies despite experiencing a civil war just two and a half decades ago.

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Among the countries most promising industries is the mining sector, where a number of minerals including tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold are churned out daily either by artisanal miners or in small and large-scale operations.

But as the country continues to grow, Rwanda’s government has said it wants to dramatically improve output in the mining sector, which has a long-standing history that dates back to German exploration during World War One.

By 2020, the country plans to generate $800m per year from mineral exports, rising to $1.5bn in 2024 – over four times the $373m revenue that was collected in 2017.

To do this will require redesigning the sector, responsibility for which falls upon Rwanda’s Mines, Petroleum, and Gas Board (RMB), which was established in February 2017 and is led by Francis Gatare, a politician and economist.

RMB says its task is two-fold: conducting an exploration mission across the country to obtain geological data that can showcase what Rwanda really has to offer, and pulling in private investors that can stimulate growth in a way small artisanal mining cannot.

“We are opening up our mining sector in a way that has not been done in the past, providing as much geological information as possible,” said Gatare in an interview with Mining Review.

A tragic history

Getting to the level of export revenues the mining sector currently produces hasn’t been easy. A quarter of a century ago Rwanda experienced a genocide that is considered to be among the worst atrocities of the 20th century. Roughly 800,000 people were killed during 100 days of violence.

The genocide was eventually stopped when rebel forces commanded by Rwanda’s current president, Paul Kagame, captured the capital city, Kigali. But the country lay in ruins with millions on the run and a total absence of basic services.

Order gradually returned as a transitional government came to power, and over the coming years the country was slowly rebuilt. The mining sector experienced a particular resurgence during this recovery period, according to an assessment by the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF).

“More emphasis was put on development of the sector, and privatization was a major step to recovery,” said the IGF. “Mining was largely privatized, and regulation and supervision were managed closely by the central government.”

The liberalisation of the sector allowed private investors in, while the formulation of proper mining policies helped plugs gaps in the law and increase skills across the industry. These changes “led to an influx of international companies investing in mining projects and forming joint ventures with local investors,” according to the IGF.

Reform drive

Recent years have seen a flurry of activity, much of it down to the work of RMB. Mining and safety standards have been developed and disseminated, while a new mining law has been introduced to tackle issues such as licensing, illegal mining and the safety of the communities that inhabit mining areas.

“We have recently revised our regulatory framework from policy to mining code and regulation – to not only make it competitive for companies to operate in but to also provide a platform that will make it easy for companies to comply with regulatory requirements,” said Gatare.

But more still needs to be done. In January, fourteen people were killed at a tin mine in eastern Rwanda following heavy rains. While in March, Gatare said roughly 50% of the countries minerals are still lost because of poor mining techniques often practiced by artisanal diggers.

“There are over 3,000 mining sites across the country but still 50 per cent of expected mineral produce remain in the soil due to lack of modern mining and minerals sluicing techniques,” Gatare said.

Recent changes have also been contested by some stakeholders in the mining industry. Though the country renewed 27 licences for mining companies last year, a number of companies lost their contracts, including two American firms that have since filed an international arbitration suit against Rwanda.

“Rwanda inexplicably formally seized the mining concessions without any payment of compensation to the investors…” said a representative of the two companies in documents seen by The East African, a regional newspaper.

Who benefits?

Artisanal miners say they are also losing out under the new rules, which price out those that don’t have bottomless pockets. According to The East African, 200 mining licence applications were withdrawn in June, the majority of them belonging to local cooperatives.

The Rwandan government cites fatal mining accidents but Frank Butera, the executive secretary of Rwanda Mining Association, has said the livelihoods of small-scale diggers are being compromised.

“This new law means that artisanal mining is banned in Rwanda,” Butera told the East Africa. “It does not consider the fact that the sector employs thousands of Rwandans who have relied on it for their livelihoods for many decades.”

While Rwanda is generally considered business friendly – it recently climbed to 29th place in the World Bank’s global rankings in ‘Doing Business’ – critics contend the government is fiddling statistics to make it seem the country is doing better than it actually is.

Few doubt that Kagame’s influence over Rwandan politics has helped generate economic growth and political stability, but rights groups say the President is presiding over an increasingly authoritarian system – a fact mining companies, and anybody else investing in Rwanda, would do well to bear in mind.