Circular Construction in Rwanda: from Pilot Project to Strategic Partnership


Now that the Rwandan construction sector has been positively introduced to circular and sustainable business practices, and the policymakers in the African country are firmly convinced, it is time for the next chapter. With a memorandum of understanding, EnergyVille/VITOand the University of Rwanda have sealed their strategic partnership. However, EnergyVille/VITO also aims to collaborate more broadly with Rwanda and help the country in addressing its challenges with sustainable and circular solutions.

In early December 2023, a delegation from EnergyVille/VITO traveled to the Rwandan capital, Kigali, to organize and moderate the closing event of the pilot project. This project involved coaching local producers of construction materials to implement circular strategies and integrate their experiences into specific guidelines for a circular economy in the Rwandan construction sector. This project, which ran for a year and a half, was funded by the Belgian federal government agency Enabel, and was led by VITO/EnergyVille (with the NGO Entrepreneurs for Entrepreneurs (OVO) as a subcontractor). It included an incubation program in which local producers were introduced to circular practices, experiencing how circular strategies can lead to more sustainable products. Through workshops and company visits, they learned how to integrate circular practices into their operations. Additionally, guidelines were drafted for Rwandan policymakers based on insights from the project. This aims to anchor circularity in the policies of the African country as a lever towards a more sustainable construction sector, helping businesses transition towards sustainable and circular practices.

"Now it's up to us"

Carolin Spirinckx from EnergyVille/VITO was there in Kigali: ‘This marked the end of our pilot project, but it simultaneously felt like the beginning of a new, longer, and sustainable journey. The project served as a preliminary phase in which we explored what circular and sustainable construction could look like in Rwanda. Now, the real journey begins, where our Rwandan partners will implement initiatives, thereby forming an ecosystem for circular construction involving both the market and the government.’ These partners include the local Ministries of Economy and of Environment, the National Industrial Research and Development Agency (NIRDA), the Cleaner Production and Climate Innovation Centre (CPCIC), and the University of Rwanda.

Spirinckx refers to a set of five specific guidelines to promote circularity within the construction sector in Rwanda, one of the outcomes of the pilot project. A working group with local stakeholders is now going to work with each of these guidelines. This involves looking at how they can be implemented. Ultimately, this should result in a real implementation roadmap for sustainable and circular construction, with a clear action plan and timeline.’ There is great enthusiasm among the Rwandan partners to get started. ‘You could strongly sense this during the closing event in December. One could describe their sentiment as, “Now it’s up to us.”’


However, the work in Rwanda is not yet complete for EnergyVille/VITO. On the contrary, prior to the closing event, a memorandum of understanding was signed with the University of Rwanda for a strategic partnership focused on promoting sustainability, circularity, and climate services in the country. The seeds have thus been sown for a long-term collaboration that extends beyond a mere partnership for EnergyVille/VITO. Earlier in 2023, EnergyVille/VITO also signed a similar memorandum of understanding with NIRDA and CPCIC. Through these partnerships, EnergyVille/VITO aims to further concentrate on enhancing sustainability and circularity in Rwanda. This will be achieved through joint academic research (e.g., the exchange of doctoral students and collaborative publications), development and training programs, joint project proposals for additional research, and the continued development of business relationships between Belgian and Rwandan industrial and public actors in the construction sector.

The long-term goal is to empower Rwanda to address its challenges with sustainable solutions. One of these challenges is the rapid urbanization of the country, with an expected doubling of the population by 2050. ‘International collaboration to support the implementation of solutions for a sustainable world is in our DNA,’ says Walter Eevers, Director of Research and Development at EnergyVille/VITO. ‘In the memoranda of understanding, we once again find evidence of this commitment, alongside Rwandan knowledge partners who share the same drive to connect science with impact, as a core value in their raison d’être.’

In December 2023, Eevers was not only in Kigali to sign the memorandum of understanding with the University of Rwanda; as a professor of Sustainable Chemistry at the University of Antwerp, he also delivered a guest lecture. The auditorium was packed with interested students and professionals during this lecture. ‘Actively sharing our knowledge with African entrepreneurs not only resulted in a successful project, but it was also a valuable lesson for us on how sustainability is perceived elsewhere in the world,’ said Eevers. ‘We, too, have learned to see through a non-Western perspective. And if we aim for global impact, we must continue collaborating with international players. This way, we can better integrate our knowledge into a global context and evolve from being a European player into a truly global knowledge institution. That is why I eagerly anticipate additional collaborations with Enabel in the rest of the world.’

Win for environment and economy

During the closing event, there was also a concluding workshop for the participating producers of building materials. This provided them with the opportunity to share their experiences with all project partners and participants. ‘There were many great stories, and sometimes even surprising ones,’ says Michiel Ritzen from EnergyVille/VITO. ‘A company that produces bricks had started producing a reusable circular brick between our first workshop and the moment we visited the company. The workshop immediately triggered circular thinking and led to adjustments to their product.’ Another company, based on the coaching, decided to no longer manufacture their finished products (concrete garden furniture) as single pieces, but composed of various components, using reclaimed materials from demolition projects. This way, if damage occurs, only the affected component needs replacement. In each case, these are examples of activities that have not only become more sustainable but also more profitable for the companies. ‘While the environmental impact decreases, there is economic gain,’ says Ritzen. ‘So, it pays off to engage in sustainable and circular business.’

Due to the successes and the great enthusiasm of the Rwandan partners, EnergyVille/VITO anticipates that there will be follow-up projects. Perhaps these will no longer focus on building products and materials, but rather on the entire building process and the other actors involved in the value chain (e.g., architects or building professionals). ‘This will introduce a higher level of complexity, involving composite systems rather than individual products, and also possible interactions with other sectors such as agriculture,’ says Ritzen.

Which new initiatives EnergyVille/VITO will launch in Rwanda and how the collaboration with the University of Rwanda, NIRDA, and CPCIC will unfold will become apparent later in 2024. Nevertheless, Enabel and EnergyVille/VITO have already taken the initiative to meet again this spring, this time not in Kigali but in Brussels. This is, after all, where the World Circular Economy Forum is taking place, and where the nascent story of circular and sustainable construction in Rwanda will be presented to the world.

Michiel Ritzen
Senior expert circularity sustainable built environment

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