Rwanda has an ambitious and holistic vision of development through sport, aspiring to use sport to gain socio-economic objectives and wield soft power.

Rwanda is often cited as a development model in Africa. Faced with the legacy of the 1994 genocide and the imperative of national reconciliation, socio-economic development can indeed represent a basis for cohesion. Based on a holistic approach, the Rwandan sports policy contributes to the country’s development as well as the creation of a winning culture and a united Rwandan identity.

Sport for Rwanda’s ambition

Rwanda’s Sport Development Policy aims to establish a framework for the development of professional sport, the sport sector and sport for all (Sport Development Policy, 2021, p. 16). It is closely aligned with international strategies (UN Agenda 2030, Olympic Charter, Kazan Action Plan) and the National Strategy for Transformation 2017-2024, and has cross-cutting provisions with several key sectoral policies such as the National Gender Policy, the School Sport Policy, and the Education Sector Strategic Plan (Ibid., pp. 10-11).

The Rwandan sports policy emphasizes the benefits of sport, including in terms of health, national pride and external influence, as well as its capacity to generate investment and employment (Ibid., p. 12). Indeed, several specific objectives directly or indirectly address the economic potential of the sport sector (hosting major sporting events, talent identification and export, etc.). Sport development could also help strengthen relations with the private sector (Ibid., p. 16), which is a key point for the country’s economy.

While Rwanda aims to become an upper-middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050, its growth is mainly driven by state interventionism. The domestic private sector is struggling to take over from public funds and official development assistance (AFD, 2021). Yet, this is an essential condition for the country to achieve its development objectives and sport is considered here as a lever for mobilising the private sector.

Successes and challenges

Kigali is banking on global visibility through sports and has signed several political-sports partnerships to that end. Since 2018, the Arsenal Gunners have been wearing the slogan “Visit Rwanda” on their shirts. According to Rwandan authorities, this campaign has increased visitor numbers by 8%. In 2019, Rwanda signed a similar deal with Paris Saint-Germain.

The country is also betting on hosting major sporting events. In 2025, Rwanda will host the World Road Cycling Championships in 2025, intending to promote its “true image,” potential and talents. In addition, the country has already hosted several continental competitions, including the inaugural season of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) in 2021. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all 26 games were played exclusively in Rwanda, which had the required sports and health conditions (IRIS, 2021). By organising a high-level showcase, including the finals at the Kigali Arena, now the largest multi-sport venue in East Africa, Rwanda successfully supported an ambitious project for development through sport. Beyond the professionalisation of basketball in Africa, BAL is working with partners such as the French Development Agency (AFD) to promote, among other things, access to education, well-being and inclusion of girls and women.

Similarly, Rwanda still faces challenges in meeting its ambitions, such as inadequate infrastructure, lack of administrative and managerial skills in sports structures, inclusiveness (gender, disability), etc. (Sport Development Policy, 2021, p. 14). Furthermore, the Ministry of Health has integrated sport into its strategy for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases (Ibid., p. 7), but Rwanda’s sports policy still lacks a strategic framework with specific objectives emphasising the promotion of physical activity for health (Mukaruzima & Frantz, 2019). Despite this, Rwanda is undoubtedly proposing an ambitious, holistic, and cross-cutting sport strategy. Time will tell if this is a winning model.