Travel, wellness and lifestyle writer and consultant Eva Ramirez shares the five unexpected things she learnt about sustainability during a recent trip to Rwanda.
This June I travelled to Rwanda for a yoga retreat with a difference. I was with Souljourn Yoga, a non-profit that raises awareness and funds for girls’ education by hosting retreats all over the world. The 10-day trip fused yoga with travel and philanthropy – it was relaxing, restorative, educational and, of course, fun. We practiced yoga, traversed the country embarking on safaris and gorilla treks, explored markets, cooked and ate traditional Rwandese food and built great friendships with the inspiring women we met. Truth be told, I expected to come away from the experience with some great memories, a bit of a tan and (hopefully) a few perfected yoga poses. One thing I hadn’t anticipated to take away from it all, however, was a lesson in sustainability.
Here are five things I learned:
It is possible to live without single use plastic bags
A decade ago, Rwanda imposed an outright ban on all single use plastic bags. Not only can you not use them, travellers are not allowed to bring them into the country. In fact, it’s illegal to import, produce, use or sell them at all. Considering the UK only implemented a plastic bag charge in 2015, I found this pretty inspiring. Rather than using plastic carrier bags, businesses use paper alternatives and a few times while shopping I was handed my newly purchased items in reusable woven carrier bags. Water pollution, soil erosion and animal deaths have all seen a reduction since the ban and as a visitor, the most noticeable benefit was how clean the country is – not a roadside rubbish heap or plastic bag hanging from a tree branch in sight.
Rwanda is working towards banning plastic entirely
With a clear vision to achieve a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy by 2050, President Paul Kagame has a firm stance on sustainability. Everyone I encountered on my trip highly praised Kagame and the country’s efforts towards maintaining a clean and healthy environment. What’s more, the Government hopes to build on the already present plastic bag ban and prohibit plastic bottles, straws and cutlery. The aim is to become the world’s first plastic-free nation.
Rwanda takes environmental conservation very seriously
Rapid economic growth has benefited both the inner city and rural landscapes. While the burgeoning capital city of Kigali may have transformed into a commercial hub, advancements in sustainability and eco conservation have not been sidelined. I was astonished at the respect and sense of responsibility which the Rwandese have towards their country. One such example of this is Umuganda, a national cleanup day which takes place on the last Saturday of each month. Umuganda was reintroduced in 1998 following the genocide of 1994 and is the “coming together in common purpose to achieve an outcome”. On this day, you’ll find people cleaning streets, repairing public facilities, building houses for the poor or farming for those who are unable to do so due to old age or disabilities.
When travelling to Rwanda, you’ll find many eco lodges and off-the-grid accommodation options, and not just in the countryside. Heaven Retreat in Kigali is a hotel I stayed in which is 100% solar powered. Taking care of the environment and local community, they employ over 100 locals, rooms are furnished with sustainable teak wood and even the bathrobes and bedsheets are locally made using traditional fabrics.
Poaching is tackled in a forgiving and resourceful way
Verdant rolling hills and vast national parks are some of Rwanda’s most appealing qualities. I visited Akagera Park, one of three main conservation areas in the country, each of which protect a large number of species, and was awestruck by the sight of giraffes, elephants, hippos and zebras roaming freely. While trekking through another, Nyungwe Forest (Volcanoes Park is the third), I quizzed my guide on conservation and was surprised to hear that many of his colleagues are ex-poachers. Having been given a second chance, these reformed poachers now protect the endangered mountain gorillas and other mammals which they used to hunt. Their knowledge is put to good use in order to conserve the environment and educate both tourists and locals. Other ex-poachers work as porters, carrying loads as tourists trek into the wild to catch a glimpse of the gorillas. The average cost of a gorilla trek is £700, providing a healthy income for the guides while also benefiting local communities, as 5% of the annual revenue from park fees goes towards projects such as building schools and hospitals.
Photo credit: WWF
As a country, they support private and public environmental projects
Rwanda’s Green Fund (FONERWA), the largest of its kind in Africa, is a ground-breaking investment fund focused on environment and climate change. Essentially, it supports public and private projects that champion a green economy and have the potential for transformative change. So far, it has committed investments of just under $40 million to 35 projects, created more than 137,500 green jobs and has reduced the equivalent of 18,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions – and that’s just since 2012!
Planning a trip away? See Eva Ramirez’ pick of eco-friendly suitcases for conscious travellers.