Esperance Mukamusoni had to travel for three hours from her home in the city of Huye to reach Kibeho, a sacred site for Christians in Nyaruguru District in south Rwanda. But not anymore. Thanks to a road constructed by a Chinese firm, the travel time has been reduced to just 50 minutes. Now, Mukamusoni can easily join thousands of pilgrims from around the world who visit Kibeho each year.
Mukamusoni vividly recalls a time when pilgrims from Uganda would have to spend a night on the road to reach Kibeho as they had to take a longer route due to a bridge collapse. It was a huge inconvenience, especially because the distance between Huye and Kibeho is just 27 km.
The newly constructed road, complete with proper street infrastructure, has revolutionised travel to the holy land, allowing people to embark on spiritual journeys at any time. The improved accessibility has made it easier for people to undertake the pilgrimage even on foot.
The 27-km Huye-Kibeho road is a segment of a 66-km road that stretches from Huye to Kibeho, Munini and Ngoma in Nyaruguru District in Southern Province. This road, funded by the Chinese government under the Belt and Road Initiative, has significantly eased transportation since its completion.
Father Jean Pierre Gatete, who oversees the operation of the Kibeho sacred site and the Kibeho Catholic church, said that the number of pilgrims visiting Kibeho has nearly tripled since the completion of the Huye-Kibeho road.
Last year alone, over 700,000 pilgrims from various parts of the world made their way to Kibeho, a substantial increase compared to the previous years when the numbers ranged between 300,000 and 400,000. He attributes this surge to the Chinese-funded road and the diligent work of Chinese engineers.
The construction of this road materialised because of 15 bilateral memoranda of understanding (MoUs)and agreements signed between Rwanda and China during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Rwanda in 2018. As part of the agreements, Rwanda secured a concessional loan amounting to $77.9 million to construct the Huye-Nyaruguru road, according to officials from the Rwanda Transport Development Agency (RTDA).
In addition to attracting a greater number of pilgrims to the holy land, the road has also facilitated the transportation of people and goods, thus fostering local business growth.
Emmanuel Murwanashaka, mayor of Nyaruguru District, highlighted the road’s positive impact on pilgrimage and the local economy, noting that before the road was built, the difficulty to access the site deterred many tourists and pilgrims from visiting the place.
Since the increase in visitor numbers, Murwanashaka said, investors who were previously hesitant to invest in infrastructure development, particularly in the hospitality sector, are showing interest.
The mayor noted that with the construction of the road, motels and hotels have also come up, allowing tourists to stay for longer periods. The availability of accommodation has alleviated concerns about lodging. Consequently, the urban centre of Kibeho has witnessed a surge in the property value.
Overall, the Chinese-built road has not only transformed tourism in Kibeho but has also stimulated economic growth, benefitting farmers, businesses, and the local community at large. The enhanced road infrastructure has improved connectivity, fostering prosperity and attracting investment to the region.
Joseph Nkusi, a local business owner in Huye, told ChinAfrica that he used to face significant challenges in transporting his goods to and from Nyaruguru, particularly to reach potential customers in Kibeho.
However, with the introduction of the new road by the Chinese firm on a Chinese concessional loan, his transport time has been slashed from hours to under an hour.
This enhanced connectivity has not only boosted Nkusi’s business but has also allowed him to tap into a wider market of pilgrims and tourists visiting Kibeho. He now supplies his products more efficiently, contributing to his business growth.
As a forward-thinking entrepreneur, Nkusi added that after seeing the potential the improved road infrastructure brought to Kibeho, with reduced travel times and enhanced accessibility, he is now considering purchasing a 29-seat vehicle for public transport to facilitate the movement of people between Huye and Nyaruguru.
“Investors are looking at ways to capitalise on the growing economic activity in the area,” he added.
Alice Uwimana, a local entrepreneur, owns a small guesthouse in Kibeho. Before the road’s construction, she had inconsistent occupancy rates due to the difficulty visitors faced in reaching the area. However, since the road’s completion, her guesthouse has seen a significant uptick in bookings. Additionally, her success is also serving as an inspiration for other investors.
Jane Mutesi, a local retailer, used to struggle to maintain inventory in her store due to limited access to suppliers. The long travel time deterred distributors from reaching her shop consistently.
Since the road’s completion, Mutesi has diversified her product range, attracting a broader customer base of pilgrims and tourists. The road has also led to an influx of investors who see the area’s potential for retail growth.
“For a long time, I dreamt of transforming local farming practices. The improved road connectivity has turned the dream into reality. With faster transportation to markets, I managed to establish a cooperative that supplies fresh produce to both local consumers and pilgrims visiting Kibeho,” said 30-year-old Gabriel Munyaneza, a resident of Kibeho.
African Times has published the article in partnership with ChinAfrica Magazine.