KIGALI, Rwanda — The first greeting travelers encounter when they step off the plane at Kigali International Airport is a large sign declaring: "Non-biodegradable polythene bags are prohibited."
Welcome to the capital of Rwanda, where cleanliness and order prevail. Trash is hard to find, even on the dirt roads outside the main arteries. Vendors have been banished from the sidewalks. And plastic bags? Walking down the street with one could cost you more than $150, while store owners found stocking them face six to 12 months in prison.
All this housekeeping makes Rwanda a pleasant place to visit. But it also raises the question: Does such a poor country really need so much spit and polish? And why scrub with such a heavy hand?
Rwanda is landlocked, hilly, and crowded. The Massachusetts-sized country exports coffee and tea, but otherwise has few of the natural resources that have blessed -- and more often cursed -- some of its neighbors. Despite these obstacles, the government says it wants to lift Rwanda into middle-income range by 2020. The strategy is to skip over the industrialization stage and transform Rwanda into a service economy (Singapore is often cited as an example). Miles of fiber-optic cable have been laid throughout the country. The government has also invested heavily in its population. Virtually all Rwandans have health insurance, and the country has made remarkable progress in beating back malaria. This focus on people has captured the imagination of ordinary Rwandans. As one man told me, gesturing toward his children, their education is what will pull Rwanda out of poverty. "This is our vision," he said.
Cleanliness is no small part of that vision. Kigali Mayor Fidèle Ndayisaba ticked off the reasons why for me recently in his downtown office. Basic sanitation is obviously a prerequisite for public health. People working in a comfortable environment will also think better, Ndayisaba added, and an attractive Kigali is more likely to draw in foreign visitors and investors.