I’m a restaurant owner in Rwanda. Its lockdown saved my business — and shows richer countries how to beat Covid-19

Two and a half years ago I opened a street food restaurant and pub in Kigali, Rwanda. As any small business owner knows, it hasn’t been easy. I’ve invested my own money, and every time it has seemed profitability was just around the corner, a new obstacle has popped up requiring further investment, adaptation, and risk. But finally, after two years of struggle, in February 2020 we achieved our first monthly profit. March was poised to be even better. It seemed time to celebrate!

Then COVID-19 happened.

On March 14 Rwanda reported its first case of the virus. Then cases started to grow: 4 more, then 2 more, then another 4.

Rwanda acted swiftly. On March 15 the government advised all offices to allow staff to work from home. On March 18th the country announced that it would be closing its borders to international travel, with the last flight out of the country at 11:59pm on March 20th. There were still only 11 confirmed cases.

On March 20th my restaurant voluntarily closed its doors to dine-in, and scaled back to takeout and delivery. It wasn’t a purely altruistic decision: we knew that if things got bad, business could be shuttered for a long time, so we wanted to do our part in the collective effort to nip this thing in the bud.

One day later, the government announced a complete lockdown — the first in Sub-Saharan Africa. No leaving the house — not even for exercise. Only food shopping was allowed. All public transportation was halted in the city, and no travel was allowed between cities even in private vehicles. Thermometer-armed police checkpoints sprung up around the city overnight to prevent unnecessary movement and take travelers’ temperatures, sending anyone with a fever for testing.

All of this with still only 17 confirmed cases.

This was not good for business. Sales plummeted by more than 63%: takeout and delivery just could not replace dine-in. On top of this, delivery services were taking a hefty cut of each order, reducing the margin on the meager 37% in sales we had left.

And while sales were crashing, bills were piling up. Rent and VAT still had to be paid. Food prices shot up by 10–20% depending on ingredient, as imports were cut off and domestic travel curtailed. The half of the staff who lived far from the restaurant couldn’t make it to work because public transportation had been shut down, but I had committed to continuing to pay wages for up to two months. So even with fewer customers, costs would remain nearly the same for a while.

And while the government has since announced much-welcomed assistance to business (such as loan guarantees and suspension of payroll taxes,) at this point I was funding these losses entirely out of my own pocket.

You might think that as a small business owner — an American one at that — severely impacted by the lockdown, I would have been furiously demanding to re-open as soon as possible and give everyone back their freedom.

But I wasn’t — quite the opposite, in fact. Because as it turns out, a swift, total lockdown was the best relief that businesses could have asked for. While the US is reopening “come hell or high water,” with 20,000ish cases of virus still being reported each day, Rwanda succeeded in squashing the virus down to single-digit cases per day before reopening — with most of these cases restricted to border crossings, and none in the capital city in at least two weeks. And with so few cases of the virus to scare away potential customers, business is returning.

Business is Returning Post-Lockdown

Rwanda’s lockdown ended on May 4, after 44 days. Restrictions were lifted gradually: restaurants could start accepting dine-in customers again — but only for short stays (no lingering), and of course with appropriate social distancing measures like masks for staff and adequate spacing of seating. Customers must submit to a temperature check upon entry, and sign a registry with their contact details to allow contact tracing if it becomes necessary. There’s also an 8pm curfew (recently extended until 9pm), so we’re still not back to full hours.

But even this limited reopening has been a massive relief. Our sales have increased 79% from the dark days of April, returning to 65% of pre-crisis levels — not great, but not bad considering the reduced hours that involve an almost total loss of prime dinner and drinking hours. Assuming that the curfew is ended, it’s not unreasonable to expect that we might be able to reach 80% of pre-crisis sales, less than 12 weeks after the start of the lockdown.

This is only possible because the virus has been crushed to such low levels that customers FEEL safe returning out to restaurants and shops. By locking down swiftly and completely, Rwanda made the country safe for business again in only 6 weeks.

Don’t get me wrong, it will take months for things to return to normal, and the pain is certainly not yet over (especially for the tourism sector, where would-be tourists from harder-hit countries are not able to return). It’s still early: the virus could always make a resurgence. And the lockdown couldn’t have gone on much longer: beyond 6 weeks, the damage to the economy would have become too much to bear (especially in a country where few people can work from home).

But it does seem that, by acting quickly and decisively—and asking its people to band together to bear a few weeks of short-term pain — Rwanda may have limited the worst of its economic suffering to a mere 44 days.

Measures Rwanda Put in Place During Lockdown Are Keeping Things Safe for Business

Just as importantly as the lockdown itself, Rwanda was also disciplined in using the lockdown to ramp up contact tracing and other preventative measures, to ensure that when the country reopened, it would do so safely.

I witnessed the contact tracing efforts firsthand.

Midway through April, I got a call from my staff that they’d been contacted by the Ministry of Health and ordered to report for Covid testing. Apparently, several foreigners at a party several weeks before had since tested positive for the virus — and a phone number present at the party had been traced to the restaurant (perhaps a party attendee had visited us for some late-night snacks, as we were not catering the event). The next day the Ministry sent a van to collect one of the staff and take her to a facility for testing, all free of charge.

She tested negative.

This was not perfect by any means — the staff member they wanted to test had not actually been working the night of the party, and none of the people who were working that night were tested — but it at least shows that the government was making efforts to identify and isolate outbreaks of virus.

Had Rwanda been less disciplined and lifted the lockdown at the first signs of improvement, things could have turned out much differently.

On April 20, no new cases of virus were reported, and over the next 3 days only 7 new cases turned up. It seemed that perhaps the virus had been beaten.

Then on April 24, new cases shot up to 22, and a further 67 were reported over the next 6 days. The culprit was truckers from Tanzania who were bringing in the virus (Tanzania, whose president infamously said that “Coronavirus cannot survive in the body of Jesus Christ, it will burn,” urging worshipers to continue to attend church). It seemed things were about to get worse again.

But they didn’t. Within days, daily new cases were back down to single digits. The lockdown had prevented a potential new outbreak from getting off the ground: because the country was already shut down, the virus had nowhere to spread to from the truckers who brought it in, buying the government time to put in place control measures around this new vector. (Truck drivers are now required to offload their goods at the border, which are then loaded onto Rwandan trucks, so they don’t need to enter the country).

Had the lockdown been more porous, I believe economic necessity would have forced it to end after 6–8 weeks anyway, but it would have meant reopening in a very different environment: one of fear rather than safety.

All of this has made it possible to reopen my restaurant — and reopen safely, with Rwanda still at only 321 confirmed cases (25 per 1M population vs. 4,983 per 1M in the US) and zero deaths, as of May 23.

The US Economy Would be Better Off Today Had We Followed Rwanda’s Approach

Meanwhile the pain for US businesses drags on. Despite many states moving to reopen, restaurants are still largely closed. And even where restaurants are reopening, only a fraction of customers are returning. In South Carolina, for example, restaurant bookings were still down 69% from pre-crisis levels, nearly two weeks after loosening lockdown measures — by this measure, a recovery less than half of what I’m seeing at my restaurant in Rwanda.

This should be no surprise. Even when customers are technically ALLOWED to go to restaurants, few will feel safe enough to do so until virus levels are crushed: the virus, not governments, will determine when customers return in droves to restaurants. I expect Rwandan consumers will feel much safer much sooner venturing back out to shops and restaurants than their American counterparts, who are being asked to return to commercial life while the virus is still very much on the loose.

And if the virus does make a resurgence (a distinct possibility given the lack of contact tracing in the US), even this small recovery could be short-lived.

Rwanda shows that it didn’t have to be this way. The US is now, tragically, being forced to choose between lives and the economy, with lockdowns having reached the limit of what people and the economy can bear — but it’s only because of our bungled policy response early on that we are now being forced into these terrible choices: this was never inevitable. We would not now be having to make these choices if our leadership had acted faster, and if we as a people had been willing to sacrifice our own conveniences for the greater good and stay home for just six weeks. Trump says we couldn’t have done anything more, but that’s hard to believe when countries with a fraction of our resources are doing it better than we are.

Yes, Rwanda did have a few big advantages that helped it act quickly. Its first case came nearly two months after the US’s, giving it more time to see just how bad things were getting in other countries (Italian hospitals were already starting to be overwhelmed by this point). Rwanda has less international travel, and therefore did not have the virus seeded as widely by travelers as in the US. Rwanda is also mostly rural, and the virus doesn’t spread as easily in rural areas as it does in crowded cities. Finally, Rwanda’s warm, humid, tropical weather could also be making it harder for the virus to spread (although warm weather doesn’t seem to be a panacea, as hotter and more humid African countries like Nigeria and Tanzania are seeing frightening — though unreported — outbreaks).

But Rwanda also has many things going against it. While most of its population is rural, it does have dense urban centers like Kigali, home to more than 1M people (and even its rural population is among the most densely populated in the world). Social and physical distancing is much harder in poor countries, where large extended families live together in close quarters in tightly-packed neighborhoods, and many households don’t have indoor plumbing, making sanitation a much more difficult task. Few workers can work from home, and most get to work on crowded buses or motorcycle taxis seated directly behind the driver. All of these factors create ample opportunities for a virus to spread.

If Rwanda (GDP per capita $773) can crush Covid in 44 days, the US (GDP per capita $62,794) surely can do better than we have done.

As a restaurant owner, I know firsthand just how painful a lockdown can be. It’s cost me thousands of dollars of my own money. But the alternative — with customers potentially not feeling safe to return for months — would have cost me even more. If given a choice between a severe lockdown that sacrifices 6 weeks of revenue but allows customers to return at the end of it, versus keeping my “freedom” to stay open for customers who don’t exist, that’s a no brainer.

So well done Rwanda. You’ve saved my business — and are showing the US and other rich countries how it should be done.

(This post originally appeared in Afrikent’s blog)

See my previous piece: “The Lion and the Buffalo (or why economies may be forced to get back to work whether it’s safe or not)



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Andrew Kent

Andrew Kent

Born in Texas, raised in Oklahoma, working on solar energy and rural electrification in Africa, BA in Social Studies from Harvard