Josh Ruxin had big plans when he moved to Rwanda in 2005. He was running an NGO that built and improved health clinics, and he launched a Millenium Village project, with support from Stephen Lewis, the Canadian politician and philanthropist. An Ivy-educated PhD, Ruxin had worked almost all his life in nonprofits and academia.
Today, Ruxin and his wife, Alissa, are all business. They own and operate Heaven, a restaurant and boutique hotel in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. He’s still involved in health care, but as co-founder of an East African chain of pharmacies called Goodlife. Meantime, he’s raising money for a startup retail chain called SupaPharm that aims to deliver basic health services to the poor.
“I didn’t see any of this coming,” Ruxin told me, when we met last week at Heaven. “I was a development nerd.”
Heaven is, well, aptly named. It’s an oasis of calm and beauty in the bustling, albeit orderly, city of Kigali. It’s become a cliche to say that Kigali is the cleanest, safest city in Africa, but like most cliches, this one is true.
Heaven was my home away from home during a recent 10-day reporting trip to Rwanda. It’s perched on a hill, just down the street from the presidential home of Rwanda’s leader, Paul Kagame. The views of the city below are lovely, the rooms are charming, the restaurant is first-class and the people who work there are exceptionally friendly and helpful.
During my trip, which was funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, I reported on a USAID-funded project to provide chickens to Rwandan farmers, on the cookstove company Inyenyeri, on a social enterprise called EarthEnable and on the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village for vulnerable children. The theme of my stories, which will be rolled out on this blog and elsewhere, is: Alleviating poverty in Rwanda: What works?
In the long run, we know what works best to alleviate poverty: economic growth. That’s one reason why I wanted to talk to Ruxin. Many people begin their careers in business, acquire skills or wealth, and then transition into nonprofits or government. It is uncommon to go the other way, as Ruxin has.
Ruxin, who is 47, told me that he made the move in part because he came to believe that the government of Rwanda, unlike many others in Africa, cared about its public’s health, and would invest in ways that would improve the lives of the poor. Its progress, in fact, has been impressive: Deaths from HIV, TB, and malaria have each dropped by roughly 80 percent over the last decade and maternal mortality dropped by 60 percent over the same period, as the Atlantic reported in 2013.
Nonprofits also do good work in Rwanda, Ruxin says. Unlike other countries — where there is often little or no coordination among foreign aid agencies like USAID, multilateral organizations like the UN, World Bank and IFC, and dozens or hundreds of private nonprofits — Rwanda’s government requires charities to align their work with the government’s plans to reduce poverty. “The caliber of work you get from NGOs in Rwanda is higher than anywhere else,” says Ruxin, who has worked all over the world.
In most places, though, neither foreign aid agencies nor charities have made much of a dent in global poverty, he argues.
In his 2013 memoir, A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, Hope and a Restaurant in Rwanda, Ruxin writes:
Why, after all the fundraising and new charities and billions in foreign aid from successful countries and full-hearted volunteers heading off to all corners of the world and donated goats and sponsored children, is there still so damn much poverty in the world?…The stubbornness of poverty seems to derive from the willingness of the haves to let their programs for the have-nots fail…
[This] suggests that poverty programs are created for our own satisfaction and rationalization, not for true and permanent results. While most development assistance has evaporated without a trace–eaten up by business-class plane tickets, hotel stays, conferences and never-to-be-read reports and pamphlets–there are also too many abandoned schools and clinics and other things of great human value littering the landscapes of the poor–facilities funded by well-meaning people with short attention spans and no true belief that poverty can actually be eliminated.
Yes, he’s become a bit of a cynic about the world of NGOs, especially the big ones that live off western government contracts. “The UN agencies,” he says bluntly, “don’t work.”
His wife, Alissa, who also had worked in public health, led Ruxin into the business world. With his part-time help, she built and opened the Heaven restaurant in 2008, added a handful of guest rooms a few years later and gradually expanded, in part because they needed more hotel guests to keep the restaurant afloat. Today, Heaven has 33 rooms, including 11 luxury rooms that are part of a gorgeous spa-annex called The Retreat.
The hotel and restaurant directly employ 85 people, and pay them “way, way over market,” Ruxin says. Many go to college while working. The restaurant sources most of its food locally, supporting Rwandan farmers, and a couple of gift shops on the premises that sell handmade goods by local artists.
Saturday and Sunday brunches at Heaven have become gathering places for expats and locals working on all manner of projects to help the country. “Part of our purpose, too, was to be a living room for interesting people,” Ruxin says.
The Heaven complex aims to serve business travelers and tourists, who typically visit Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park. The government hopes that the safety, stability and cleanliness of Kigali can make the city into a conference center for all of Africa; it built a convention center, Marriott and Radisson opened gleaming modern hotels and a new international airport is under construction.
As for the pharmacy chains, Ruxin says they are often a first stop for people with a variety of ailments, as pharmacies once were in the US. (Both of his grandfathers were pharmacists.) He hopes that GoodLife, which operates about 45 pharmacies in Kenya and Uganda, can become a trusted brand on a continent where as many as a third of all the drugs sold are counterfeit.
Supapharm will target poorer customers, in part by selling groceries at a low cost. The outlets will be designed to diagnose and treat a variety of illnesses, including the so-called lifestyle diseases of the west, which are spreading in Africa. “Heart attacks and stroke are taking out more people than HIV or malaria,” Ruxin says.
What excites him about the pharmacy chains is that they have the potential to scale, Ruxin says. “In about nine months, I raised more money for something impactful in health than I did in all my years in nonprofits,” he says.
In his book, Ruxin writes: “Most international development schemes rely on two legs: a hint of government action and NGO charity. But a third leg, the market, is the strongest of the three and often overlooked.”
“No nation, not even the United States, has enough public and foundation money to send all the kids to college who qualify, or cure all the illnesses that plague us,” he goes on. “But small jobs and private incomes do the trick.”
Rwanda is, in fact, growing faster than most of east Africa. Between 2001 and 2015, real GDP growth averaged at about 8% per annum, according to the World Bank, although some say the growth rate is inflated. In any event, many Rwandans remain desperately poor; some of my travels took me to villages without running water or electricity, and where children were obviously suffering from malnutrition. In the weeks ahead, I’ll be reporting on efforts to make their lives better.