Making a Bid to Become Africa’s IT Hub: Rwanda Makes Huge Strides
by Shirley Randell
Rwanda is one country in Africa that is making huge strides in developing its economy and reducing corruption. It is also gaining a reputation for prizes in gender awareness and information technology. After winning the 2007 African Gender Award, President Paul Kagame has now won the African IT Lifetime Achievers Award from ForgeAhead. At the same time, Rwanda’s Treatment and Research Aids Centre was awarded two trophies for its use of information and communication technologies in health services. Rwanda is also becoming a key site for international and intercontinental conferences. Ten African heads of state, 53 ICT ministers and 19 executives of information technology companies flew into Kigali for the November 2007 Connect Africa Summit.
Challenges—and Causes for Hope
It is hard to imagine how far Rwanda has come in such a short time. Less than 13 years ago, the tragic genocide, when nearly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in just 100 days, devastated the economy and the spirit of the people. However, in 2000 the government developed its Vision 2020 with specific goals in development to be achieved in two decades. Given its lack of mineral resources, the Rwandan government had decided to transform the country from agricultural subsistence to a knowledge-based economy by 2020. In 2007, with two fibre-optic rings around Kigali, and cable being laid across the country, Rwanda is well on its way to being wired. The objective is for Rwanda to become the IT hub for the resource-rich nations of Eastern and Central Africa
Countries like Rwanda, the world's least developed countries, don't easily become high-tech hubs. Fifty-seven percent of Rwandans still live below the poverty line, defined by the United Nations as an income of less than a dollar a day. Only five percent of all Rwandans use electricity. According to a 2005 study by the Australian National University, LDCs make up 10 percent of the world's population and represent only 0.13 percent of the world's Internet users.
Yet, there are hopeful signs. Nearly 74 percent of Rwanda's adults can read and write. This fact, combined with Rwanda's dense population—almost all of whom speak the same language, Kinyarwanda—make the country a much more promising place for establishing an Internet hub than Rwanda's resource-rich, ethnically diverse and less-educated neighbours. The fact that Rwanda is closing in on this goal without having the massive oil wealth of Angola or Sudan, the diamonds of Congo or South Africa, or even the copper of nearby Zambia is a testimony to the power of imagination.
Implementing the National IT Plan
The Rwandan Information Technology Agency was established in 2002 to consolidate and coordinate the country’s IT resources to realise the larger road map for the country into the future. RITA is currently focussed on coordination of the implementation of the second national plan as a strategic resource for government. At the same time it is attempting to manage the national ICT procurement and delivery process to ensure that the government gets the best value for its money, by using ICTs to support the delivery of e-government services to all the citizens of Rwanda.
While unveiling the second phase of the National Information Communication Infrastructure, President Kagame said Rwanda’s move towards an ICT and knowledge-driven economy is a decision rooted in the practical realities and challenges within Rwanda. "Development in the 21st century is being defined and driven by digital highways and ICT-led, value-added services. We are determined to take full advantage of the digital revolution. …It will allow us to make use of our most important and most abundant resources, our people."
The president appealed to the World Bank for assistance and, such is the reputation of the government, that for the first time in the bank’s history, a project was approved and funded in less than a year. Rwanda was granted $10 million to implement the eRwanda initiative in just six months. Other donors, notably SIDA, EU and USAID, are supporting Rwanda to reach its vision in the area of ICT. The eRwanda initiative has demonstrated Rwanda’s vision to harness technology to implement more effectively development reforms and the delivery of services to the Rwandan people.
Viewing ICTs in the Broader Context of Development
The government considers that ICTs are not only about technology but also about development in the broader context. ICTs are often generally associated with economic growth, wealth creation, poverty reduction, employment generation, cost-efficient use of public resources and good governance.
It is expected that Rwanda will become a regional leader in ICT and in public sector reform, using ICT as an instrument to increase efficiency, strengthen competitiveness and enhance modernisation; it will focus on quality, equality and efficiency in delivering public services. The development of entrepreneurship via a private sector, particularly in the financial, tourism and ICT domains, is also considered important. The government plans to provide ICT training for the private sector and to stimulate the local ICT industry by providing business opportunities and incentives to promote ICT investment.
Rwanda’s dream of becoming the Singapore of Africa is a point of pride for the government. In the next two years, nearly every school in Rwanda—from distant mountain villages to swelling urban areas—will have access to the Internet. One observer has said: "This country is very hierarchical, and whatever the government decides to do, it will do, and society will follow in a very disciplined way. That culture can be used to do very bad things, like the genocide, or can be used to make the society better."