Twenty two years after the genocide, Rwanda wants to become Africa’s digital centre by investing heavily in ICT infrastructure.
It has financed $100 million Tech Innovation Fund, deployed high-speed fibre-optic in all 30 districts, provided Wi-Fi coverage to schools, public buildings, hotels, bus terminals and supermarkets in the capital Kigali.
Rwanda has the most extensive national fibre broadband network in Africa and nearly the entire population is expected to have Internet access by 2020, according to Jean Philbert Nsengimana, Rwanda’s Minister for Youth and ICT.
“Today, the top 25 cities in Rwanda are covered by 4G LTE,” he said, adding that the country is providing the thought leadership in ICT matters to the continent.
But majority of Rwandans do not have the right skills to appreciate these technologies to transform into a knowledge-based society, casting a cloud over Rwanda ICT’s ambitions, experts warn.
Even with a total mobile subscriber base going up, few people in the country can afford smart devices while a majority cannot afford the Internet.
However, Mr Nsengimana says digital illiteracy is being erased by introducing computers to school children.
Rosine Mwiseneza, a student of business management at Kepler University, a US-based university with a campus in Kigali, says she is impressed with the automatic irrigation app she and her fellow students have designed.
“It will be used to help farmers detect the soil moisture and then sends a command to the system and the water pump will start extracting water from the tank and irrigate the field,” the 22-year-old said.
“The app will also detect when there is enough water in the soil and send a command to the system to stop pumping water.”
Ms Mwiseneza is one of many young girls mentored in ICT technologies by Geek Rwanda, a tech initiative launched in 2014 to encourage young talents in a competition every year by participating in tech innovations and also encourage them to consider a career in science, technology, engineering and maths.
Rwanda hopes to become a key economic hub by using high technology, transform the largely agriculture-based economy into a service-based one.
This effort is illustrated by the Smart Africa initiative launched and hosted in the country, Connect Africa and Transform Africa Summits, as well as the champion role that the president plays at the level of the African Union, says minister Nsengimana.
“The government is encouraging young people to start their own businesses and if you have an idea and work hard, you make it here,” said Patrick Buchana, a young techpreneur who founded AC Group, the first company in Rwanda to design the “Tap&Go” card that helped passengers move from cash payment system to cashless payment.
His company now employs more than 30 people in Kigali. “The cash system was delaying the buses and there was a need of technology to switch to cashless payment,” says Mr Buchana.
Analysts say there is no doubt that Information and communication technology (ICT) in Africa is contributing to rapid growth of African economies, but whether the gains will be sustainable and benefit the poor in rural areas is yet to be seen.
The country has been ranked top sub-Saharan country with most affordable Internet for the second time successively according to Alliance for Affordable Internets 2015-16 affordability report released on February 22.
Mr Nsengimana said his government has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University, US research institution offering degrees in Africa to teach IT and engineering in Kigali.
“In terms of building ICT infrastructure, we are doing well. We are building an ecosystem that is putting Rwanda ahead of the curve,” Mr Nsengimana said.
“By 2017, we will have 95 per cent of the population coverage of 4G, ahead of the continent and among the global leaders,” said the minister.
The World Bank has ranked Rwanda as the easiest place to do business in sub-Saharan Africa previously, and Transparency International says Rwanda is the least corrupt country on the continent after Botswana, Cape Verde and the Seychelles.
Yet Rwanda is still very poor — the average Rwandan lives on less than $1.50 a day, according to the World Bank. It also attracts little foreign investment due to factors such as insufficient infrastructure and a small domestic market.
But like many African countries with no resources, Rwanda says it underscores the need and determination to invest heavily in a high-tech-savvy middle class.
The majority of Africa is made up of very young people and a lot of these people don’t have skills to help them earn a living. There is hope that this skills gap will be narrowed as funds to train them materialise, said African Development Bank president Akinwumi Adesina.
“African Development Bank is launching a project called Jobs for African youth Initiative. This initiative is designed to create 25 million jobs for young people within 10 years,” Mr Adesina, also the co-chair of World Economic Forum meeting in Kigali starting next week said on Straight Talk Africa show in April.
“It’s going to focus largely on building their skills and also focus largely on ICT capacity building for the youth in Africa.”
“The future of Africa’s young people does not lie in migrating away from Africa,” he said.