How Rwanda Became One of the Cleanest Nations on Earth

Does true environmental change seem impossible? It’s not. Here’s how one country went from polluted to pristine in just a few years.

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Colorful plastic bags
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The ban on plastic bags

How did Rwanda become one of the cleanest places on Earth? One simple step made a huge difference, according to the United Nations Environment Programme: banning the use of single-use plastic bags in 2008. This was spurred by a study commissioned by the Rwandan Ministry of Environment, which found that plastic bags posed a serious threat to agricultural production and contaminated the water, killing fish and causing pollution.

Rwanda didn’t stop with single-use plastic grocery bags. The country also banned plastic packaging materials. Today, Rwandans use bags made from other biodegradable sources, including paper, cloth, banana leaves, and papyrus. Here are 50 facts that will encourage you to stop using plastic, too.

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Long shot of Kigali downtown in Rwanda

The cleanest capital

Rwanda takes this issue very seriously. In fact, anyone violating this ban could face hefty fines and even jail time, according to the New York Times. But enforcing the initiative has paid off. Thanks in large part to the absence of plastic waste, UN Habitat declared Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali as one of Africa’s cleanest in 2008. Rwanda is using investment and innovation to become cleaner and save the environment.

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Rwandan women selling eggs to people visiting the Kimironko market in Rwanda's capital city.
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Environmental entrepreneurial opportunities

Good entrepreneurs can see gaps in service and products, and they create new products to fill those voids. That’s good for the economy and the environment. After all, once plastic was banned in Rwanda, someone needed to think of and manufacture all of those alternative packaging materials. Investors saw this as an opportunity and established alternative packing industries as well as plastics recycling plants, according to the New Times, Rwanda’s leading daily newspaper.

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Tropical rain forest, Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda, Africa, wide format
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An increase in forest cover

Rwanda has become one of the cleanest nations on Earth because of its ambitious environmental goal of “increasing forest cover to 30 per cent of total land area by 2020,” per the World Economic Forum. To achieve this, the country has undertaken massive reforestation and tree-planting efforts. Additionally, new measures such as “agro-forestry” and “training schemes in forest management” are being implemented. Together with the plastic-bag ban, these initiatives helped Rwanda receive a Future Policy Award from World Future in 2011.

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Tea plantation and tropical forest, sunny day, Rwanda,Nyungwe, selective focus
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Planting trees to clean up a country

The forest-cover goal has nearly been met already, thanks to the 2018–2019 planting season. According to the New Times, “38,119 hectares of agro-forestry, 4,800 hectares of classic forestry, and 225,440 fruit trees were planted across Rwanda. This is in addition to some 670 hectares of degraded forests, which rehabilitated.” Now, 29.8 per cent of Rwanda is covered in forest. Rwanda is cleaner than almost any country on Earth, and it’s also one of the countries that’s safer than you think.

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Group of Rwandan women in colorful traditionals clothes wearing washbowls on their heads, Kigali, Rwanda
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Umuganda, a Kinyarwanda word that translates as “coming together in common purpose,” is the name of the monthly community cleanup held on the last Saturday of every month. NPR notes that this holistic community effort to clean up the country “is one reason that Rwanda is renowned in Africa for its cleanliness.”

But cleaning up Rwanda is not a volunteer project. On paper, Umuganda is a Utopian community fantasy project, in which people come together each month to keep their neighbourhood, town, city, and country clean. But according to NPR, “police monitor the streets and can stop Rwandans who aren’t participating and make them clean up on the spot.” The penalties for not taking part in Umuganda are severe for Rwandans. Fines can be issued for up to 5,000 francs, nearly $6. That’s not an insignificant amount when the average income translates to roughly $150 a month.

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A group of tourists
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Solar-powered and sustainable tourism

So, let’s recap: The streets and public parks are clean, and there’s no plastic being used in the country. But that’s not all. There are also a number of eco-lodges and green accommodation choices throughout Rwanda, according to Eco-Age. That includes a hotel in the capital that’s 100 per cent solar-powered and features sustainable teak wood furniture.

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Front view of mountain gorilla observing tourists in the forest

Ecosystem restoration

Upgrades in the country’s parks have also helped Rwanda become one of the cleanest nations on Earth. But believe it or not, the country is now turning to those who worked to destroy the natural environment for help. Eco-Age reports that “reformed poachers now protect the endangered mountain gorillas and other mammals which they used to hunt.” Other ex-poachers are now gainfully employed as porters and guides, safely taking tourists into the wild to see the gorillas. Without these sorts of efforts elsewhere in the world, these endangered animals species could disappear in your lifetime.

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View of mount Sabyinyo, one of the volcanoes in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda

National-park upgrades

Rwanda is proving what most intelligent people already know: National parks and preserved open green spaces improve the environment and can help the economy. “Forests such as Nyungwe, Gishwati, and Mukura have been restored and upgraded into national parks,” per the World Economic Forum. The results have been an economic boon. The parks, which are home to an array of flora and fauna, have been a hit with tourists, generating more than $300 million in revenue (in U.S. dollars) in both 2014 and 2015.

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KIGALI, RWANDA - CIRCA FEBRUARY 2017: A view towards town and some university buildings in Kigali.
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Building a green economy

Rwanda is extremely vulnerable to climate change, and it is trying to stem the environmental impact therein. Part of the African nation’s effort to build a low-carbon and climate-resilient green economy by 2050 has been to create an investment fund that financially supports public- and private-sector projects. To date, the Green Fund has raised approximately $100 million, and it’s the largest eco-friendly-focused investment fund in Africa.

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Residential area in Kigali,
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A buzzing new economy

In the middle of the entrepreneurial initiatives, environmental policy, and green investment Venn diagram is the Rwandan honey trade, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme. Eight cooperatives were formed in the Nyabihu district in 2016, with the intention of harvesting more honey after the government’s order to cease using up the forest. With the assistance of UN Environment and Rwanda’s Environmental Management Authority (REMA), they started working together on a project to help locals build alternative livelihoods away from the logging and animal-rearing industries. Today, beekeeping has stepped up from a side hustle to a real career option for the people of Rwanda.

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A view towards town and some university buildings in Kigali.
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Green politics

Because no kind of nationwide effort can be sustained without a significant change of ideology, it has been vital for Rwanda to put the environment and climate-change concerns at the heart of its development. This has paid off already, as Rwanda’s Ministry of Natural Resources was recently accredited by the International Green Climate Fund. The World Economic Forum says this designation will help the country attract meaningful new finance to help curb climate change, “enough to enable it to maintain rapid economic growth on a resource-efficient, low-carbon, and climate-resilient path.”

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A silverback mountain gorilla in a rainforest in Rwanda

Cleaner…and with more gorillas

Not only have environmental efforts helped Rwanda become one of the cleanest nations on Earth, but the change in attitude on the ground and policy at a governmental level may also be helping mountain gorillas, too. According to the New Times, conservation efforts to save endangered mountain gorillas are working, and there are now more than 1,000 of these animals, up from 800 in 2011.

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New solar panel carports in the parking lot of the Makro store
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Cleaner energy equals a cleaner country

While there have been funding snafus, the Green Climate Fund is set to award $25 million to an off-grid solar-energy project that will promote solar use in East Africa through a new investment fund, KawiSafi. The nation is growing quickly, and the opportunity is there for Rwanda to bypass old technologies and instead work to develop an economy that can “withstand a changing climate and provide prosperity for generations to come.”

Next, meet the wildlife veterinarians saving mountain gorillas in central Africa.

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Originally Published on Reader's Digest