By Eric Kacou
When I first moved to Rwanda in 2001, people could not hide their concern; their fear was baseless, rooted in images of a genocide that ended seven years before. Today, when Rwanda features in my conversations, the reaction is completely different.What I see is genuine curiosity and admiration. Everyone wants to learn about the metamorphosis of this small East African nation.
Rwanda’s transformation is not unlike that of another small nation: Singapore. The East Asian country has gone from third-world to first-world in just one generation. In many ways, both Rwanda and Singapore have defied the laws of economic gravity.
Two Nations, One Obsession
On the surface, Rwanda and Singapore share a number of similarities. Both nations are densely populated and resource poor. Both have been, at one time, entrenched in the Survival Trap: a vicious circle of poverty based on outdated mindsets in the private sector. Major crises played an important role in their rebirth: genocide in Rwanda and the Malaysian crisis in Singapore.
Rwanda and Singapore display a healthy obsession with prosperity creation, rooted in a history marked by poverty, crisis and lack of opportunities. Both nations recognize the importance of mindset in achieving prosperity, which is reflected in promoting entrepreneurship, improving the operating environment, and reflecting pro-innovation values throughout all levels of society.
Rwanda, with half its population living below the poverty line, works daily to escape the trap; Singapore keeps the memory of poverty alive to avoid complacency.
Archimedean Leadership, the Killer App
The same software is powering both Singapore and Rwanda. The killer app that is delivering prosperity to both nations is a unique brand of leadership: Archimedean leadership.
True to Archimedes’ dare, this inspired leadership uses business as a lever and moral purpose as a fulcrum to lift the average citizen into prosperity. Archimedean leadership accounts for both nations’ ability to escape the Survival Trap.
In both countries, two outstanding leaders, Lee Kwan Yew and Paul Kagame, epitomize Archimedean leadership. Unveiling their “secret” provides actionable insights for leaders and businesspeople serious about prosperity.
The Agaseke: the DNA of Archimedean Leadership
Today, the recurring question about Rwanda is: What is the secret? The first image that comes to mind is a piece of art: the Agaseke basket. Agaseke baskets are unique pieces of art painstakingly woven by women in groups. Often called “the peace basket,” women’s cooperatives often created the Agaseke in the days post-genocide in groups that brought together individuals of all ethnicities for cooperation and healing.
There is something powerful about art. Art gives you a unique window into the soul of a people. It expresses deeply rooted values by transcending its physical form. It also expresses the vision and innovativeness mankind can harness.
Similarly, the Agaseke provides a unique window into escaping the Survival Trap. Each Agaseke begins with the mindset that with a vision one can create a beautiful and useful object out of mere sisal through partnership and innovation.
LIFTS to Prosperity
The Agaseke basket is a good illustration for how an Archimedean leader can foster innovative mindsets as LIFTS to prosperity. This translates into five key attributes:
- Lighthouse—each Agaseke begins with a vision, a lighthouse that keeps women focused on a beautiful end product. Leaders of Rwanda and Singapore share a common lighthouse: a vision for prosperity.
- Intangibles—Rwandans and Singaporeans alike revere their intangibles. Both nations invest in their citizens, develop shared values and cherish their heritage. Both revere cultural capital and values as their most important assets. The Akasake reflects ancient traditions and best of modern values entwined into a single, beautiful result.
- Forward thinking—both nations have worked towards hopeful destinies instead of adopting uninspiring scripts dictated by their endowments. Like the Agaseke, both endeavors are forward-thinking.
- Trust—the fruit of partnerships, the Agaseke fosters trust. Both nations have worked on building trust: Singapore through integration and Rwanda through reconciliation. Such trust has enabled far-reaching partnerships.
- Solutions—beyond its aesthetic nature, the Agaseke has stood the test of time because it is a solution used to carry and store valuables. Instead of embracing band-aids, both nations have focused on sustainable solutions for tomorrow.
The Plight of Archimedean Leaders
Archimedean leaders need to realize that escaping the Survival Trap requires courage.
It takes confidence to stare at one’s problem yet refuse the easy answers. It takes endurance to stay the course. Both Kagame and Lee have demonstrated the discipline to focus on solutions for tomorrow.
Another lesson Kagame and Lee teach us is to be daring and able to operate in the face of disagreement. Both leaders have come under criticism for taking an uncompromising stand on their values.
Prosperity is Possible
Ultimately what draws parallels between these two nations most often is the incredible story of how each nation was able to rise up and achieve exemplary economic reform and progress.
Archimedean leadership as a LIFT for prosperity has made Singapore and Rwanda true beacons of hope. What is most inspiring to me is the catalytic effect that both nations are having on Africa, Haiti and the rest of the world.
The ultimate thing that both Rwanda and Singapore teach us about escaping the Survival Trap is that it is possible. In the same way Rwandan women are weaving Agaseke, both nations show us that any nation can write its own story of success.
 Eric Kacou knows as much about strategy, management science and Rwanda as anyone. This Wharton and Harvard grad, born in the Cote d’Ivoire, spent almost a decade in Kigali; and he deepens our understanding of the oft-made comparison between Singapore and Rwanda.