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  6. “What the West can learn, is empathy”

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“What the West can learn, is empathy”

How do people move about in the countryside today and how will they do so in the future? Which mobile possibilities do they need and demand? And how can technology change their lives? Experts all over the world are thinking intensively about the future of mobility. Dutchman Rem Koolhaas is one of the most influential architects and urban space theorists of our time. For the “Countryside, The Future” project, he studied rural areas all over the world for years alongside the “AMO” think tank which belongs to his architectural firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA).

Together with the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, Wageningen University and the University of Nairobi, he investigated, for example, the effects of climate change on Siberia or how agriculture functions under high-tech conditions. The results of his years of work can be seen from February to August 2020 in the exhibition of the same name “Countryside, The Future” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Using examples from all over the world, the exhibition shows the extent to which life outside the cities, especially on the African continent, has changed and which factors are responsible for this transformation.  

Rem Koolhaas ...

... is one of the most influential architects and urban thinkers of our time. In 1975, he founded the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), later the associated think tank AMO. He first noticed the radical changes in rural areas during his regular visits to Switzerland’s Engadine region.

Volkswagen Group is AMO’s research partner and supports the office with data and knowledge. For example, for the first time, the exhibition will also show a model of the solar-powered electric tractor that small farmers can borrow via app – a study that Volkswagen Group South Africa has developed for rural Africa.

With this commitment, Volkswagen is also making a substantial contribution to economic development in Africa, the continent with the fastest growing young population. For product innovation at Volkswagen, it is crucial to gain more knowledge and insights into the changes, also in rural Africa. We talked to Rem Koolhaas and Michaëlla Rugwizangoga, who has headed the Volkswagen Mobility Solutions Group subsidiary in Rwanda since 2018, about developments on the African continent and the mobility sector there.

  • Volkswagen Mobility Solutions

    Volkswagen Mobility Solutions, a subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group, offers mobility services such as ride hailing and car sharing and was founded when the first Volkswagen plant was opened in Rwanda two years ago.

Mr Koolhaas, since when have you been interested in the African continent?

Rem Kohlhaas: My special interest was aroused in the mid-90s. At that time, I was working on a Harvard study that dealt with the further development of cities. It turned out that the development of cities everywhere is happening faster than in Europe, especially in Asia and Africa; for example in Lagos or Nairobi. Following the cities, we looked at rural areas and found that a radical change is taking place in Africa, partly triggered by the new railway lines constructed by China. They significantly improved the accessibility of rural areas. Another finding was that African students can very well imagine a future in the countryside, even more so than in the city. We discovered innovation; many start-ups use of media consumption was refreshingly new. So the assumption that people only flee the countryside to megacities and become impoverished there did not necessarily hold true.

...and what were your observations as part of your extensive Countryside research?

RK: On closer inspection, one finds very attractive conditions everywhere in rural areas, especially in Africa. Why? Because Africa has great, beautiful, open and rich landscapes that invite you to spend your life there. And probably in a much more pleasant way than in the city. Life in the countryside today is much less isolated thanks to the variety of technologies and media, and you are potentially very well connected to the city without actually living in the city. With our exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, which presents our project in detail, we would also like to help restore a picture of the interesting life in the countryside.

Michaëlla Rugwizangoga: In the interests of the exhibition and the visitors it should also be said that Africa is the continent with the fastest growing young population. A population whose members will be the consumers of the future. Global corporations and companies are therefore already trying to position themselves there now in order not to miss the market opportunities in ten- or 20-years’ time. People today are often forced to change locations and therefore expect better mobility solutions. However, projects relating to the mobility of the future are usually only aimed at the major cities. It is therefore crucial for product innovation at Volkswagen to gain more knowledge and insights into the changes, including in rural Africa.

Michaëlla Rugwizangoga ...

... is CEO of Volkswagen Rwanda Mobility Solutions. She grew up in the Ivory Coast and studied chemical engineering in Kaiserslautern amongst other places. She has been the company’s first female CEO since 2018.

One section of the exhibition is entitled “African Avantgarde” and deals, among other things, with leaps in technological development. Could you tell us more about this topic and explain which conditions are particularly crucial to this leap-frogging phenomenon?

RK: There are many start-ups that specialize in agricultural technology. For example, young people, aged just 18 years, have succeeded in developing an amazing instrument for controlling soil moisture. The device checks the moisture and sends the information to the farmer’s mobile phone. This makes them more independent, and if necessary, they are alerted by mobile phone. Such developments are already showing results in agricultural practice. People now prefer to stay in the countryside or even return to it. In the course of our research we also came across an NGO called GiveDirectly, which is conducting the largest experiment to date on the universal basic income. It passes on its money directly instead of using it to build wells or water basins that may not be needed. This has proved to be highly effective: In several hundred villages in western Kenya, a standard amount of money is given to men and women over the age of 18. The money is a significant help for people who are working in Nairobi, as they are expected to provide financial support for their village.

Due to the high cost of living in the city, however, in most cases nothing is left for this. The program offers them the opportunity to return to the countryside and build something for themselves. And the success is really amazing. Normally they could not afford to make a bad investment with the little money they have available. With the extra income they can experiment, even make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and organize themselves in groups. It is also interesting to note that this program gives women in particular real help to help themselves and enables whole generations of women for the first time to make decisions and manage money, thereby fundamentally changing their lives and freeing themselves from their dependency.

MR: The African continent currently offers many new opportunities for women. In Rwanda, for example, the proportion of women in parliament is 68 percent. The government consists of 50 percent women and 50 percent men. The country’s top companies are therefore run by women. The Rwanda Development Board has a female CEO, Volkswagen Rwanda has a 33-year-old female boss, and the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology is headed by a 34-year-old female minister. And these are just a few examples.

Mrs Rugwizangoga, does Volkswagen Rwanda belong to the avantgarde?

MR: Rwanda is positioning itself as a test country for the continent. We can proudly say that according to the World Bank’s “Doing Business Index”, Rwanda is the second best location for doing business on the African continent. Agriculture remains one of the most important sectors. We export tea, coffee and other products. These are two important factors for Volkswagen’s business in Rwanda. Conditions here are favorable and the government is providing support. The population is young and technologically competent. The roads are in good condition, even in rural areas. These are all important factors that played a role for Volkswagen in the development of its Africa-wide expansion strategy in Rwanda. The limited availability of fuel forced Volkswagen Rwanda to rethink its approach, because fuel arriving via the ports of Kenya (Mombasa) or Tanzania has to cover long distances before we can use it to power our vehicles. Electric or solar-powered vehicles would be the most obvious solution for our continent, as sun rays in Africa are twice as powerful as in Germany. Our work here is to test new mobility solutions. We have demand for new, good quality, sustainable and low-emission vehicles. The population of Rwanda is very young. Young people want the same products to be available here as those that are available in New York or London. This is what we at Volkswagen are working towards.

  • Exhibition „Countyside, The Future“

    Volkswagen Group is the Research Partner of AMO and thus supports the Countryside Project. The exhibition of the same name can be seen at the Guggenheim Museum New York from February 20, to August 14, 2020 in the rotunda of the museum.

Why is mobility so crucial?

RK: In Africa, several days are often necessary to cover distances. There is hardly anything comparable in Europe anymore. However, we are also aware that Africa cannot simply adopt the Western mobility model with SUVs, motorways etc., because that would destroy itself. For this reason alone, I consider it to be a highly interesting region that can initiate the beginning of a new way of thinking. There has been a program to tarmac many roads in Africa, financed by the USA, among others. At a certain point, however, the futility of this project was recognized. Since it is ultimately impossible to tarmac the entire road network, it would be better to develop a vehicle that is suitable for both road and off-road use and which can cope with the conditions of the rainy season also. 

The first Volkswagen plant was established in Rwanda around two-years ago

Furthermore, the idea is not to sell the vehicle to individuals, but to make it available to a village for rent and shared use. We in Europe were not far from this great model 50-years ago. In the past, there was always someone in the village with a tractor, someone else with a car and someone else with a Volkswagen Transporter. Then, if necessary, you would call your neighbor and ask: Can I use your Transporter? Can I borrow your convertible for my wedding? This is a natural form of sharing that we have only recently lost. I think you can learn a lot from the current situation in Africa.

MR: In line with the plan for the future, Volkswagen is developing into a mobility company. We no longer call ourselves an automobile manufacturer, but a mobility provider. The customers of the future want a just-in-time product that they don’t have to refuel and for which they don’t have to take out insurance on. They are not interested in owning their own car. At the new Volkswagen plant in Kigali, we build cars for individual customers and our mobility services such as community car sharing, ride sharing and car sharing. In Rwanda today, you can book a ride in a Volkswagen via app, with or without a driver.

We spoke earlier about the booming start-up scene in the agricultural technology sector. So, the growing population in Africa also needs new models for agriculture. Volkswagen’s contribution to the exhibition is a study of an e-tractor for rural Africa ...

MR: …. Yes, the African population is growing rapidly: Africa must increase its food production. So we need better technologies, we need to switch from manual to mechanical farming in order to increase crop yields significantly. In other words, we need smaller, energy-saving tractors that are affordable, robust and allow almost self-sufficient operation. Volkswagen Group South Africa is currently working on the study of an electric tractor that can be recharged with solar energy and will be available for rent via a mobile phone app. The model works in a similar manner to car sharing and is intended for customers who cannot afford to buy. The e-tractor will be available for rent to individuals or communities. Our e-tractor also has its own solar energy infrastructure with which the vehicles can be charged.

RK: The unique thing about this development in my eyes is that it does not follow the familiar pattern. Change in agriculture has always meant expansion: larger fields, larger farms, more monoculture. And bigger machines. The interesting thing about the change here is that it is not so much about enlargement, but only about changing the tools to be able to continue farming more or less in the same way as before – only better. So, the concept does not involve a complete change, but only an improved way of working. Indeed, this is a key factor for agriculture in all the countries concerned.

With its commitment in Africa, Volkswagen is making a substantial contribution to the economic development of Africa, the continent with the fastest growing young population

We must not wait until a new economic incentive or a new cooperation ensures that our previous work is declared meaningless and we are forced to start from scratch again. This approach guarantees continuity and, at the same time, allows for a significant improvement within this continuity. What all these villages really need for further development is a machine that can transport goods, but also bring energy, i.e. electricity, to remote areas. In old villages you can see that the marketplace has always been the center. Today people go where electricity is located. The charging station as the center of village life is the hub where you can charge your mobile phone to communicate and produce. When I saw the study of the e-tractor for the first time, I realized: this is a crucial moment. This machine can change a lot. 

Are there other factors that are important for the development of rural areas?

MR: Good healthcare and affordable health insurance are crucial. Rwandan health insurance is also affordable for people living below the poverty line. For them it costs less than ten dollars. We also have a well-developed network of health centers in rural areas. One of the many programs that have been launched is, for example, “One cup of milk per child”. Under this program, all kindergartens and primary schools in rural areas ensure that every child receives at least one cup of milk in the morning. This has improved the supply of protein and vitamins. In another initiative, mobile phones were offered to pregnant women. This scheme gave pregnant women in rural areas the opportunity to obtain a simple mobile phone with basic functions from the nearest health center. Using the phone provided during pregnancy, expectant mothers were reminded by SMS of screening appointments wherever they were. The program has led to a drastic reduction in the maternal mortality rate.

Mr Koolhaas, now that you have done intensive research on rural areas worldwide, you can surely make comparisons. What opportunities do you see for rural Africa?

RK: I see a unique opportunity for Africa not to repeat our mistakes. For this reason alone, it is a highly significant region. And I am sure that there will be – and must be – a lot of change here, and therefore also there. But the African countries have not gone in the same direction as we Western countries did at our own risk. But the scale of change is the same.

MR: There are many ways in which rural communities can develop and change in a sustainable way. The increased technological development of agriculture will make a decisive contribution to enabling more people to live above the poverty line and thus reduce the number of people migrating to the cities.

What can the West learn from Africa?

MR: We are very resilient and united by a strong sense of community. Our population is young, curious and well equipped with a wide range of opportunities. What the West can learn from us, is empathy.

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