Starting up in Kigali: Everything you need to know

8 min read
02 Dec 2020

t’s remarkably easy to start a business in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city. Green, temperate and with a supportive ecosystem, Kigali is full of opportunity for both international and local entrepreneurs.

Rwanda is often touted as one of Africa’s shining stars of development and this small country is definitely on the rise. Its location right next to the Democratic Republic of Congo and its membership in the East African Community mean that it’s in the middle of a region with tremendous potential for growth.

The country routinely ranks as one of the least corrupt in Africa and its forward-thinking government is constantly pushing towards ambitious development goals, actively supporting business owners along the way. Ready to start up here? Informed by Startup Guide Kigali, here are the essentials to starting a business in Kigali.

Photo: Maxime Niyomwungeri / Unsplash

What is Kigali like to live in?

Rwanda is a tiny nation of twelve million people, and Kigali is its cultural and business hub. The national language is Kinyarwanda but English is widely spoken in Kigali and is the language of choice for commerce and government. 

A stunning, green city set across several hills and offering perfect weather, it’s small enough to get around easily but large enough to keep things interesting. It’s also one of the safest and cleanest capitals in the world. 

It might not be as freewheeling as some other African cities, but Kigali has a charm all its own with a slow, calm pace and a feeling that the country is collectively moving toward something great.

Rwandans are warm and friendly, and newcomers will find Kigali an easy place to find their feet.

How are the people?

Rwandans are warm and friendly, and newcomers will find Kigali an easy place to find their feet. There is a general sense of hope, solidarity and positivity about the future here, but recognition of Rwanda’s tragic history can’t be ignored. Never raise the topic of the genocide against the Tutsi or ask about anyone’s ethnicity – as a policy, everyone is now Rwandan. Talking about politics, especially in public, is frowned upon and doing so might make people around you uncomfortable. 

To foster community, neighbors gather together for umuganda on the last Saturday of each month to work on local projects. As a foreigner you’re exempt from umuganda (but welcome to participate) and you shouldn’t leave your house until after work is completed at 11 AM on these days. 

Rwandan society as a whole is conservative, though Kigali a little less so. People dress modestly and are generally polite and non-confrontational. Rwandans can be reserved but if you attend church, get involved in neighborhood activities or work in a local company you’ll find that many are eager to get to know you. It can take some time to make real connections, but if you make an effort you’re sure to create some solid new friendships.

Is Kigali affordable?

Kigali can offer a very nice standard of living on a monthly budget of FRw 1 million to FRw 1.5 million ($1,065–$1,600). This is plenty for a room in a modern shared house, groceries including imported items, daily transport on motorcycle taxis, gym membership and nights out. 

A meal and a beer at a local pub can be as low as FRw 5,000 (around $5) but you will pay closer to FRw 20,000 ($19) at a nice restaurant. Monthly membership at a modern gym such as WAKA Fitness starts at around FRw 28,000 ($30) and a 30 GB pay-as-you-go data package is around FRw 9,400 ($10) per month. 

Buying a car can be expensive and gas usually hovers around FRw 1,000 (just over $1) per liter. The cost of living in Kigali, as anywhere, will depend on your quality of life, but it’s easy to live well here for less than in many other parts of the world.

What do I need to know before I move to Kigali?

Kigali can be a very affordable place to live, but make sure you have savings for initial expenses. Pick up a map from Africa Guide Maps before arriving as it’s the most accurate map of the city and packed with information useful for newcomers. 

A yellow fever vaccine is required and you’ll need it for international travel within the region. Malaria is more common in the countryside than in Kigali and many foreigners choose to forgo antimalarial medication, but check with your doctor for advice on this and other vaccines. 

All residence permits require a police certificate from your country of residence for the previous six months and some visas require notarized copies of academic certificates, so be sure to bring these.

Do I need a visa? What about a work permit?

Rwanda prides itself on its openness and offers a progressive and forward-thinking visa program. Citizens from every nation in the world are entitled to a 30-day visa on arrival, which is free for citizens of the African Union, Commonwealth and Francophonie member states. 

Visa rules change often, so check IremboGov for the latest information and to start your application for a visa or residence permit. Most foreigners apply for a temporary permit, of which there are over twenty categories. If you want to travel among Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya, the East African Tourist Visa is an excellent option, but it doesn’t allow you to work. 

The Rwanda Directorate General of Immigration and Emigration website has a full list of visas, the documents required for each and printable application forms. The process can be started from overseas but must be completed at the Rwanda Immigration and Emigration office in Kigali within fifteen days of your arrival. Bring proof of payment, your passport and the required documents and get to the office just before it opens at 7 AM to avoid a long wait. 

You’ll also be required to get a residency card at the same office. Visas range in price but both business and employment visas cost FRw 150,000 ($160) and are usually issued for two years (depending on the whims of the immigration officer). Government guidelines say that it takes two days to issue visas but two weeks is more common.

Registering a business in Rwanda is incredibly simple.

How do I start a company in Kigali?

Registering a business in Rwanda is incredibly simple and the government prides itself on its openness to commerce. As a foreigner you can register a business on arrival for free and be up and running within 24 hours. Just go to the Rwanda Development Board with a business concept and name, fill in a few forms (there are people there to help you through the process), and you’ll be issued a Certificate of Domestic Company Registration and tax number (TIN) the same day. 

You will need to include your TIN on all of your invoices. Rwandans love official stamps so get one made with your business name, TIN and phone number (it’s a cheap and easy process at a stationery shop). Once you have these things, you’re ready to start trading – it’s as simple as that.

To get a business visa, you’ll need your registration certificate and an immigration official will want to visit your place of business, so you’ll need to rent an office, even if it’s only temporary. Additionally, you’re required to have a trading license (also known as patente), which costs between FRw 40,000 ($43) and FRw 90,000 ($96) depending on the turnover of the business and must be paid annually.

If you're looking for some support in starting up, Westerwelle Startup Haus Kigali is a significant player in the Kigali startup ecosystem. More than a coworking space and makerspace, it is an entry point for investors, entrepreneurial support organizations and new arrivals. It’s an affordable and friendly place to work and its events are a great place to make local connections.

You can register a business on arrival for free and be up and running within 24 hours.

Photo: Simbi Yvan / Unsplash

What are taxes like in Rwanda?

Taxes are collected quarterly by the Rwandan Revenue Authority (RRA). The online filing system is fairly straightforward but fines for missing deadlines are harsh. Accountants are affordable and hiring a firm is recommended. 

Businesses that earn under FRw 20,000,000 ($21,300) annually can choose to file taxes using the lump sum regime, under which they’re taxed 3% and have no requirement to file expenses. Businesses that earn more must use the real regime, under which expenses are accounted for and a tax of 30% is levied on net earnings. 

A value-added tax (VAT) of 18% is charged on most goods and services. If your business nets over FRw 200,000,000 ($213,000) annually, you’re required to collect VAT and pay this quarterly to RRA (but you can claim VAT on your business-related expenses). There are various other taxes depending on your circumstances, so consult the RRA.

How do I handle money in Kigali?

Opening a personal bank account in Rwanda is simple once you have a residency permit. Just choose a bank (Access, Ecobank and Bank of Kigali are popular and have good internet banking) and take your passport and a passport-sized photo. For a business account, you will also need a business certificate. 

Some, but not all, banks offer POS machines, so if this is important to you, make sure to check. Banks here generally offer good customer service, and staff members will often give you their contact details and are responsive when you need help. 

You can use local and international cards in any ATM across the city and some have an option of dispensing US dollars. The fee for international withdrawals is usually around $2. Kigali is still largely a cash city, but it’s possible to use local and foreign bank and credit cards in a growing number of shops and restaurants. MTN has a mobile money app, MoMo, that is growing in popularity and is incredibly useful, especially for paying bills.

Inspired to move to Kigali? Learn more about the ecosystem and find valuable resources in Startup Guide Kigali.

Written by Kirsty Henderson.

Repackaged by Hazel Boydell.

Main Photo: One Zone Studio / Unsplash.