Sportswashing? No. Rwandans benefit from the business of sport

Saturday March 11 2023
 Rwanda cyclist Jean Bosco Nsengimana

Cycling spectators on February 21, 2023 cheer on as Jean Bosco Nsengimana rides in a solo breakaway during stage 3 of the Tour du Rwanda from Huye to Musanze, Rwanda. PHOTO | AFP


In Rwanda, we are banking on sports playing a positive role in our ambitious development plans.

As Kigali prepares to host this year's Fifa Congress, the usual critics are circling. The language of "sportswashing" has exploded over the last decade, almost exclusively employed by commentators in the West, and almost exclusively deployed against countries in the Global South.

Sports is a half a trillion-dollar industry. No longer just consumers of sports, Rwandans are engaging with the business of sport with the ‘Visit Rwanda’ brand. The partnership with Arsenal FC and Paris Saint Germain allows us, each week, to promote Rwanda and particularly our tourism industry to billions of fans.

Visit Rwanda’s partnership with the NBA Africa brought us the first edition of the Basketball Africa League, a success despite taking place in the midst of the Covid pandemic.

Global competition

The impact of these collaborations is already being felt, as Rwanda is evolving as a destination for global competition, from triathlon to beach volleyball to cycling. In this year’s Tour du Rwanda, Eritrean cyclist Henok Mulueberhan won the yellow jersey defeating a field of close to 100 cyclists from all over the world, including former four-time Tour du France winner Chris Froome. In 2025 Kigali will host the first UCI Road World Championships on the continent.


Rwanda’s partnership with Arsenal and Paris Saint Germain generated over US $160 million last year in media value. This, in turn, helped generate US $445 million in tourism revenues courtesy of the over one million visitors to Rwanda in 2022. This revenue represented a 90 percent recovery to pre pandemic levels, as compared to a global average of 65 percent recovery according to the World Tourism Organisation.

These visitors enjoy stunning views, safe streets, friendly people, pleasant year-round temperatures, a once in a lifetime wildlife experience and world leading accommodation.

Positive memories

These guests not only left Rwanda with positive memories; they also played a direct role in improving peoples’ lives. Tourism directly employs thousands of Rwandans and the revenues accrued allows Rwanda to build hospitals in rural areas, to pay for school lunch programmes and expand the national power grid.

In addition, through our tourism revenue share scheme, communities neighboring Rwanda’s national parks receive ten percent of the revenues generated by the parks to improve their livelihoods.  Tourism is truly an industry that impacts not just those who are directly employed in it.

Interestingly, while we have seen such windfalls from our involvement with global sport, it has also generated criticism from pundits who mostly know next to nothing about Rwanda, and draw upon tired tropes simply because they fit with certain preconceptions of Africa.

It’s alright to disagree with Rwanda's governance model, but a campaign to undermine investment in a developing country’s economy, which has a real impact on the lives people, is counterproductive and cynical.

African countries struggle against this kind of bias every day. However, we are determined to prove wrong attempts to dictate who we should be and what we should or should not do to improve our lives. 

Gatekeepers can choose to argue about whether or not Visit Rwanda should be on their television screens, but they cannot ignore the fact that marketing Rwanda in the way that we have, has had a real impact in the lives of our people.

It is time to move beyond the false narratives that prevail in public discourse on this issue. There is power and opportunity in sports partnerships, and Rwanda is clear on how to pursue prosperity for all. We will not be bullied into ceding our place at the table.

Clare Akamanzi is the CEO of Rwanda Development Board