InterContinental Kigali, Rwanda

The InterContinental Kigali is a gateway for growing numbers of tourists visiting Rwanda. Its presence has also dramatically enhanced the lives of its employees and suppliers

With the film Hotel Rwanda drawing three Oscar nominations earlier this year, media attention has been focused on the genocides committed during the Rwanda conflict in the early 1990s. Over the course of 100 days, nearly one million people were killed, but the plight of the Tutsis against the Hutu militia was largely ignored.

The film is based on the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, manager of the Hotel des Milles Couines, who housed over a thousand Tutsi refugees and ultimately saved their lives. Ten years on, Rwanda is a growing destination with tourism a key driver in regenerating the country.

Visitor numbers are predicted to rise by as much as 750% in 2005. A few blocks away from the Hotel des Milles Collines in Kigali's stylish Rue de Revolution is the five-star InterContinental Hotel Kigali which opened in February 2004.

It is operated by Southern Sun and employs around 150 full time staff, mostly local people, l\1any of whom had no previous experience of the hotel industry. The aim is that over the next two years the percentage of Rwandan staff, particularly those in senior positions, will increase even further. Building an InterContinental Hotel in the heart of Africa is a huge construction and environmental challenge. Once built, the challenges did not end.

Finding people with the international hospitality skills that guests expect is not easy in a country where survival is still an aspiration and the number of hotels, country-wide, can be counted on one hand. From housekeeping to banqueting, Southern Sun had to build a team capable of 'making it happen' 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Sourcing guest toiletries, fresh tomatoes and even mushrooms became major initiatives in their own right.

George Cohen, General Manager, and his team have reached out and connected with the Rwandan community, overcoming the technical difficulties of a very poor road system, no continuous or reliable supply of electricity, mains water that does not meet international standards, insufficient refrigeration and chiller facilities and little knowledge of international food handling and preparation standards to create a real InterContinental hotel.

To address these obstacles, it was necessary to incorporate a dedicated sewage treatment plant, a water purification system with sufficient storage for two weeks, on-site generators, and a laundry, butchery and bakery (bread-making was a particular challenge since no wheat is grown in the country).

Southern Sun and InterContinental Hotels Group (lHG) encouraged members of the local community to apply for jobs across a range of departments, but instead of basing the selection process upon experience (which the people didn't have), the criteria were the ability to learn and a desire to deliver a high quality service. The necessary knowledge and skills were provided through the project's training academy where Rwandans who had never before even seen a hotel were taught how to operate one.

For a time the hotel imported food produce from Uganda, Kenya and South Africa. However, Rwanda is a fertile country and its hills are scattered with small farms so Executive Chef Gary Lane has invested time in educating farmers on how to produce-five star quality produce. Eggs and milk are now purchased locally, local cheeses are on the menus, guests can now enjoy Rwandan steaks and, for the first time, mushrooms are grown in Rwanda. In a short period of time the hotel has become a catalyst for wealth creation.

Employment at the InterContinental has given staff their first bank accounts. For many female members of the community this one act gave a freedom and independence they had never previously experienced. Courses have been given on western hygiene practices that can be adopted by employees and their families at home. The hotel also has a full time doctor and nurse who provide on-site medical care to employees and their immediate families. Last February the hotel hosted the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) Heads of State Meeting which was a milestone for Rwanda. Viewed against the backdrop of the country's recent history and the scars still borne by its people, the opening of the InterContinental Kigali is both a remarkable and inspiring story.

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