Sketching Hills: Green Design in Kigali

Featured image: This is the view from Mass Design’s office in Kigali Heights – a clear look at Kigali’s challenging topography and largely unplanned areas.

By Daud Shad

Kigali is a fascinating city to visit. It’s the increasingly vibrant capital and only major city of small, landlocked, and hilly Rwanda. The country, sometimes promoted as the Switzerland of Africa, has a population of around 12 million, with a tenth residing in Kigali. Oppressive colonial powers ruled Rwanda until independence in 1962, and Rwandans are still recovering from the horrors of the genocide in 1994. Despite this stifling recent history, the country has become a land of recovery and inspiring possibilities. With a name stemming from the Kinyarwanda word “gari” meaning “broad,” Kigali is broadening in both size and vision.

In 2018, United Nations Environment Program Executive Director Eric Solheim called Kigali the “cleanest city on the planet,” citing important initiatives to limit pollution and promote reforestation. This superlative is evident across much of Kigali, especially in the Convention Centre and shopping mall area. The city features a successful green fund, and it’s a regional leader in green design, two aspects that make it a healthier and more sustainable place to live. As Carlos Lopes, High Representative of the Commission of the African Union, noted at the 2019 African Climate Summit in March, “although Africans are responsible for only a tiny share of the carbon emissions that cause climate change, the continent is especially vulnerable to climate shocks,” due to risks of severe flooding, drought, heat stress, projected population booms, and shifts in malaria transmission.

To design “green” is to be environmentally conscious while constructing buildings, planning infrastructure, and fostering an equitable society. Kigali faces urban sprawl and informal settlements, which make green design a necessity. When people can build whatever and wherever they want without restrictions, it becomes difficult to have an easily navigable and public health-centered city. An urban plan sets guidelines for land use, establishes public spaces, ensures safe water and reliable power infrastructure, and improves transportation routes, among other things. These strategies are new for the city, as prior to 2013, there was no master urban plan for Kigali. Without a central plan, the city has had decades of disorganization. To address this, the City of Kigali announced the creation of its first master plan in 2013. 

The plan hopes to transform Kigali, a city that uses 17% out of 33% of its developable land as urban area, of which 7% is unplanned settlements. Land use and transport goals include providing adequate working spaces for 1.1 million service sector and 0.6 million industrial sector jobs, having a public-private transport ratio of 70:30, ensuring citywide connectivity to major transport terminals and employment nodes within an hour, increasing pedestrian walkways, and paving all national and heavy-trafficked roads. Housing and environmental goals include building a “slum free city” with 90% home ownership rates and an open space every 400 meters, afforesting and ending development on steep slopes, conserving water and energy (use 20% less than global averages), and increasing recycling and rainwater harvesting rates. In a 2018 CNBC Africa interview, Director of Kigali Urban Planning Fred Mugisha described using surveys and focus groups to officially review the plan every few years, calling it a “citizen-centered master plan” that is unique for Rwandans.

Another aspect of the plan is to preserve Kigali’s historic and cultural identity. Using vernacular architecture ensures that a cityscape is coherent with its natural environment and true to its local character. The vernacular of a place can be discovered through common building materials, construction techniques, design patterns, color schemes, and styles that are native to the geography and people. Rwandan vernacular heritage is clearer in rural areas than in Kigali’s concrete-based neighborhoods and City Centre, which is packed with international-style buildings, like the 20-story City Tower. The vernacular includes mudbrick and timber, low-rising structures, thatched pitch roofs, zig-zag patterns, and bold earthy colors. This often brings questions of modernity versus tradition to the forefront of design – how should long-standing conceptions of home and community adapt to new technologies and rapid urbanization?

Kigali’s iconic Convention Centre and plaza, completed in 2016, is best viewed from the popular Kigali Heights mall.

The high-rise buildings of City Centre, Kigali’s financial and administrative district, are built on top of a tree-covered hill.

Jean Paul Sebuhayi Uwase, a design director at the prominent non-profit MASS Design Group in Kigali, says that there is a “huge attachment to the exterior spaces,” adding that “privacy is one of the key things here.” Rwandans generally spend most of their day outside, as most kitchens and bathrooms are located behind the house in private backyards. In urbanized areas, people are adopting customs from other countries such as having open, indoor kitchens and moving into apartments, which are becoming more popular with less available plots. Construction in Kigali initially shifted away from traditional uses of mudbricks, plaster, and timber, as concrete imports began. Though concrete is cheap and fast, it requires carbon-heavy production and cannot be repurposed like other materials. Urban planners are now stepping back from their push for concrete blocks over the more environmentally-suited mudbricks.

MASS Design is promoting green design across Rwanda through its top floor office in Kigali Heights, a shopping mall and office tower across from the Convention Centre. The organization was started in 2008 by students at Harvard Graduate School of Design. Its stated mission is “to empower leaders who will design a more equitable, just, and sustainable world.” Ensuring local employment and skill development through the construction process is a priority in the organization’s community needs-driven model. The Kigali office is the firm’s largest, staffed by architects from Rwanda and across the globe. Its projects have included the University of Global Health Equity in Butaro in rural Rwanda, which is a collaboration with Partners In Health to train healthcare professionals next to the Butaro District Hospital.

The organization also selects and trains fellows from countries in the region through the recently-developed African Design Centre, and is determined to cultivate leaders to meet Kigali’s denser future. Jean Paul himself was part of his nation’s first class of architects, graduating in 2013 from the University of Rwanda, formerly known as Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST). After the government announced Kigali’s master plan, architects were in high demand. After all, as Jean Paul explained, Rwanda needs architects who are “professionally organized and also tied to the culture” to understand the context and fulfill the needs of the plan.

Aside from training architects, Kigali initiatives seek to provide funding for eco-friendly work and increase public awareness about climate challenges. Rwanda’s Green Fund, FONERWA, finances projects “in order to accelerate goals of national sustainable economic development.” One example is Cactus Green Park, a masterplan for a sustainable neighborhood in Kinyinya, Kigali, designed by the Horizon Group and Light Earth Design. Such developments, with “efficient land use and medium density” and green technologies (renewable energy and low carbon materials), are furthering conversations about certification standards in Rwandan neighborhoods. Though aspects of these developments are costly in the short term, simple, passive design practices, like maximizing natural light in buildings to reduce electricity use, can be adopted by anyone and have a large positive impact.

Kigali is gradually becoming a city notable for its sustainable development and distinct character. It features some iconic structures that can drape postcards, and it’s expanding its public works. Tourist-heavy, iconic structures include craft markets, Hôtel des Mille Collines of Hotel Rwanda fame, and the hill-shaped, lights-filled Convention Centre. Kigali’s most notable monuments include the Genocide Memorial, a fountain sculpture of a woman holding a child’s hand across Kigali Heights, and the Liberation Monument depicting the Rwandan Patriotic Front outside Parliament. The city seemingly lacks art reflective of its pre-colonial cultural heritage. Commissioning public art pieces and architecture that pay tribute to history and the vernacular would prevent a sterile and overly commercialized city in the future. Such structures, perhaps made of earth, would complement Kigali’s natural appeal, something that is rare among other growing cities.

In terms of public works, Kigali is thinking about better ways of public transportation. The city lacks rail lines, though Rwanda is currently trying to finance $1.3 billion for part of the Isaka-Kigali Standard Gauge Railway with neighboring Tanzania and potentially expanding lines through China’s Belt and Road Initiative. (China recently funded a major highway to Kigali’s under-construction Bugesera International Airport.) Most people get around the city by walking or via cars, most commonly Toyotas, and moto taxis, which cost between fifty cents and one dollar. Biking isn’t very common. Bus stations are crowded in Kigali, with buses taking passengers to any edge of Rwanda within five hours. The city buses have card systems for regular passengers and even WiFi access, making them extra popular.

Hilly Kigali topography presents challenges to large infrastructure projects. Flood prevention and drainage systems are difficult to make, though all roads, paved or dirt, have open or brick-covered storm trenches. To overcome other environmental issues in transport, the future may bring solar-powered buses – and even cable cars. Observing Kigali from a high point, you can imagine a robust cable car network stretching across steep hills and transporting people and cargo through the shortest possible distances. Such a system would be exciting and boost tourism while providing disconnected residents with affordable travel. New Times, Rwanda’s primary English-language newspaper, reported researchers’ proposals in 2019 to build a cable car line. The proposal highlights Kigali’s elevations, vehicular congestion, and desire to shift away from carbon-heavy transport as advantages of using electric-powered cable cars.

Large public projects are important in improving access to the city and its resources for the most disadvantaged residents. In the Nyamirambo neighborhood’s informal settlements, there are no roads for vehicles nor street lamps amid densely-packed houses. With the master plan’s goal of ending slums and removing informal settlements from areas like wetlands marked for conservation and flood protection, tensions between the government and residents arise. For example, the city under an improper land use citation is trying to clear the Kangondo slum, where more than 1,100 families live. An article in The EastAfrican, a Kenyan newspaper, explained that many residents preferred monetary compensation, factoring in lost income from rent and employment accessibility, over relocation into housing projects, which the city mandates to prevent new slum creation; legal action from residents is pending. Besides slum clearance, Human Rights Watch has reported arbitrary detention with “inhuman and degrading treatment” of “undesirable” people, including street children and homeless people, at Kigali’s Gikondo Transit Center, which the city dubs a “rehabilitation center.”

Green design must improve life for all residents and key to achieving this is affordable housing guarantees. 38.1% of Rwandans live below the poverty line per the World Bank in 2017; 61.7% of Kigali’s population lives in informal settlements, many in areas prone to flooding or with poor sanitation, per the Rwandan Housing Authority. In developing cities across the world, residents of informal settlements are often neglected while luxury hotels and commercial districts are built for elites and foreigners. Kigali is taking actions to improve conditions for its poorest communities like increasing public transport, creating job opportunities, and decreasing environmental hazards, though much work remains to guarantee housing and services for the most disadvantaged.

Going forward, Kigali is likely to keep expanding green design. Owing to Kigali’s green appeal are a plastic bag ban (potentially on all single-use plastics), bimonthly car-free days in city centers (serving as temporary plazas for events like 5k runs), and mandatory monthly cleanups called Umuganda. Community engagement like Umuganda, during which Saturday morning hours are dedicated to cleaning up and repairing public works, is what sustains green design. A commitment is needed from all citizens to make a city that improves life for everyone and cares for our selfless Earth.

Daud Shad is a junior in Berkeley College. You can contact him at