Photograph by Friedrich Stark, Alamy
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The pool and garden of the Hotel des Mille Collines are attractions for guests. The hotel was made famous by the movie Hotel Rwanda, as the location where Tutsis took refuge during genocide.

Photograph by Friedrich Stark, Alamy

Smart Cities: Kigali, Rwanda

With a determined push forward, Rwanda’s capital city is proving that it’s worth more than a stopover.

Kigali is one of those cities that most people can’t quickly point out on a map, but reference it as the capital city of Rwanda, and eyes flash with recognition. The genocide that erupted in the country more than 20 years ago is the reason for that; however, Rwandans are now intent on shifting that tragic spotlight and moving their country forward. Ambitious infrastructure plans, a commitment to technology, gains in gorilla conservation, environmental game plans, and local champions mean that the future looks hopeful.

Young and Growing: The current city population of about 1.2 million (roughly 10 percent of the country’s population) is expected to triple by 2040. In a country where the majority are under the age of 25 (with 40 percent under the age of 15), a generational domination is underway. Traditional ideas are shifting, and the results are exciting: a real GDP growth that has averaged 8 percent a year between 2001 and 2015, the highest number of women in parliamentary positions in the world, and a decrease in child mortality rates.

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Two of Kigali's newer buildings rise behind the palm trees and greenery in Kigali, Rwanda.

Shifting Landscapes: In a city where almost half of the land is mountainous or wetlands, or contains bodies of water, finding housing for Kigali’s growing population has made innovation a necessity. Under the government’s Kigali Masterplan 2040, high-rise buildings are set to change the city’s look and feel. The plan offers a vision for developing infrastructure that will be necessary for modern Kigali’s success.

History Lessons: There is no shying away from Rwanda’s gruesome history—a genocide that took more than a million lives in 1994—but Kigali offers insight into how the country is rebuilding. You’ll find the moving Kigali Genocide Memorial here, a heart-wrenching and thought-provoking experience aimed at ensuring that history is never repeated. The building is located on the site where more than 250,000 people who died during the fighting were buried in mass graves.

Moving Forward: Locals are working to unite the once fragmented country. In reconciliation villages located around Kigali, Hutus and Tutsis live side by side. Tourists can also visit the historically Muslim quarter of Nyamirambo, where local women offer tours that include meeting their neighbors. The profit from ticket sales help fund the women’s center.

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Photographs of people killed during the 1994 genocide are on display in the Kigali Memorial Center at the Genocide Museum of Kigali. The photographs were donated by families and loved ones.

Clean and Green: Kigalians have one of the cleanest cities in Africa, and it’s no accident. Every month the entire country, including the president, participates in a mandatory community cleanup called Umuganda. Choose not to participate and you could be fined. An agressive plastic bag ban, in place since 2008, and recent investments by Rwanda's Green Fund to turn Nyandungu wetland into an urban recreation and ecotourism park are examples of the city’s continued commitment to environmental initiatives. Phase one of the park is expected to be finished by 2018.

Gorilla Tourism: Volcanoes National Park has brought a growing interest in gorilla tourism and new tourists through the capital city. Praveen Moman, founder of Volcanoes Safaris, isn’t surprised. He was one of the first tourism operators to return to Rwanda when the genocide was over. Gorilla-watching permits are limited and can cost about $500 a day, but those fees from the visiting tourists have helped sustain the gorilla population, once on the verge of extinction. Through the Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust, which Moman and his wife, Giulia Marsan, established in 2009, guests help with the continuation of wildlife stewardship and habitat conservation while improving local communities.

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A mountain gorilla sits with rare twin babies in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda.

Education and Technology: Kigali is connected. Innovation City, a Rwandan government project launched in May 2016, has led to the development of an extensive fiber-optic infrastructure that intends to deliver 4G LTE capability to more than 95 percent of citizens by the end of this year. It’s likely one of the reasons that the World Bank has pronounced Kigali Africa’s second easiest place to do business. Innovation City is part of the Vision 2020 goal that is already underway, which aims to transform Rwanda into a knowledge-based, middle-income country. The project has also increased the number of students in higher learning from 4,000 in 1994 to 86,000 in 2016.

Imagination Stations: People need a space to work out their ideas and the tools and financial support to test them out—so went the thinking behind the FabLab Kigali branch that opened in Rwanda in May 2016 as part of a global network dedicated to developing new ideas. The focus in Kigali is on the creation of new products in the hardware and electronics domain. The goal of the space, according to FabLab, is to provide an opportunity for Rwandans to “integrate hardware skills with software knowledge,” in addition to introducing Rwandan innovators to the world.

The Impact Hub: Co-founded by American (and long-term Kigali resident) Jon Stever, the Impact Hub Kigali is an incubator where co-working spaces and portal connections to international, like-minded thinkers result in virtual global meet-ups. Regularly hosted edgy talks by entrepreneurs and creators in an inspiring rooftop space help locals connect in new ways to further develop ideas that will benefit the country.

Art Central: Kigali got its first public library in 2012 and has wasted no time incorporating it into the vibrant arts community. The Inema Arts Center, a space founded by brothers Emmanuel Nkuranga and Innocent Nkurunziza that houses up to 10 artists-in-residence, regularly hosts art exhibitions on the library’s rooftop. You can also find young artists at work or displaying their creations at galleries around the city, including at Ivuka Arts Kigali and Uburanga Arts Studio.

Hollywood Famous: The movie Hotel Rwanda made it famous, but Hôtel des Mille Collines—where many lives were saved during the genocide—remains a working hotel and boasts a popular pool.

Where the Hipsters Go: The young and hip head to Kimihurura for the latest social trends. Among them, says Moman, is Repub Lounge, “run by the 'Naomi Campbell twin,' Solange.” Here you can sip a Rwandan cocktail or stock up on brochettes. Other current hot spots include Teabarra, a specialty tea and coffee start-up, and Kimy Gourmand crêperie for both savory and sweet versions of the light, pancake-like offering.

The New Brew: Craft beer is about to get a new face in Kigali. Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company, based in Ottawa, Canada, launched a successful Kickstarter campaign and is now in partnership with local entrepreneur Josephine Uwineza to launch the first woman-run brewery in the country.

Connected Transportation: Easy to understand and inexpensive to use, Kigali city buses can reach most of the major landmarks in the city, and free Wi-Fi is offered on board.