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Rwanda bids to become main ICT hub for East Africa

Rwanda’s President sees the country as an ICT hub, but it has always fallen short due to a lack of delivery. This has changed now that Internet connectivity is cheaply available and that there is an ICT hub for start-ups, writes RUSSELL SOUTHWOOD of Smart Monkey TV.

Whatever else you might say about Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, he has always had a vision for Rwanda based upon the development of his country as an ICT hub. Until recently this ‚”grand projet‚” seemed almost an act of hubris as the delivery fell significantly short of the rhetorical reach. But based on a recent visit, it seems that a number of elements are now coming into focus.

At the end of October the country hosted a gathering of African Presidents for an event called Transform Africa. Its doughnut shaped regional conference centre is not complete but the event provided the opportunity for African Presidents to claim bragging rights about their ICT progress. Nothing is ever perfect but Rwanda has better claim than most to both vision and delivery.

Launched in 2000, the Government of Rwanda’s 2020 Vision is about turning the country into a knowledge-based middle-income country. It is based on what are described as six pillars, which are as follows: good governance: an efficient state: skilled human capital: a vibrant private sector: a world-class physical infrastructure: and modern agriculture and livestock. ICT is seen as a ‚”cross-cutting‚” theme, the area which would attract investment.

For a number of years, the ICT element of this strategy seemed to be dogged by the fatal difference between reach and grasp. The Government privatized the fixed telecom company to a US investor and then fell out with him and renationalized the company. It has now sold to another private company, Liquid Telecom.

As a landlocked country without a fibre connection, the speed of Internet connectivity made it difficult to realize the ICT dreams expressed in the vision. It was one of the first countries to order Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child, almost as a symbolic act of commitment.

However, the machine and the idea of ICT-supported education were so engulfed in arguments about their effectiveness that it rather took the shine off of this early mover advantage. The same controversies have mired the recent move by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta to provide laptops to the country’s school children.

So what changed for Rwanda and its ICT vision? Two big pieces of the jigsaw have fallen into place. Firstly, the country is now connected to the international fibre landing station at Mombasa and connectivity is now available very cheaply at a wholesale level. Secondly, it invited the Koreans (in the shape of their telco KTT) to build a national fibre network. By contrast, with Uganda, which asked the Chinese to finance and build a similar network, this one seems to have been completed on time and to a working standard. The same company has also been asked to build a wholesale LTE network to connect the fibre network to places beyond easy reach of it.

But it is not just hardware that has fallen into place but also the softer elements. The capital now has an ICT hub for start-ups called kLab, initiated by the country’s private sector association with Government providing the premises. This offers its members free wireless Internet connectivity and appears well-used. It also seems to be helpful in broking relationships with potential private sector customers.

See video clip interview with its Acting General Manager, Jovani Ntabgoba on the link below:

It’s often hard to judge how serious start-ups are and the bunch that we interviewed for Smart Monkey TV were both very young but also seemed extremely serious about what they were doing. They may lack the fashionable creative copying of many start-ups further east of Rwanda but they seemed reasonably well worked for the Rwandan market.

Jean Niyotwagira’s TorQue has produced a stock control software suite, which is now used by the national brewery. It caught the eye of Heineken who have recommended it and so it now has a customer in neighboring Burundi. Also it’s not just about stock control but also can be used to identify sales patterns, with a view to increasing sales. It tried selling the software to the country’s mobile operators for airtime re-sales before finding the brewing niche.

See video clip interview with Torque’s Jean Niyotwagira on the link below:

Two of the young start-ups focus on ICT4D apps, one in the health field and the other for farmers. Aphrodice Mutangana’s health app is SMS based and provides advice and prompting for conditions like diabetes. Esther Kunda’s OSCA Connect is a fairly standard agricultural advice and market pricing app for farmers.

See video clip interview with Aphrodice Mutangana on the link below:

See video clip interview with Esther Kunda, OSCA Connect on the link below:

Jesse Gakwandi’s app Get It! looks to the future. It’s an Android app in a country where smartphone use is beginning to grow that offers ideas for going out and doing things in the capital Kigali. An app of this kind is likely to come into its own as there is more to do in the capital Kigali and its young inhabitants are more likely to have cheap Android smartphones.

See link below for video clip interview with Jesse Gakwandi:

Two other developments have also crystallized in a practical form some of the rhetorical aspirations of the Government. Carnegie Mellon has a teaching department, offering MA s in the same building as the kLab incubator. It is teaching the tough stuff like engineering.

Chris Marler’s Pixel Corps has set up the Africa Digital Media Academy (with Government support) that boasts an impressive array of hardware to teach complex film and television skills like 3D modeling, CGI and so on. He is pulling in highly skilled talent from Hollywood to act as trainers. In a country where previously there was only one state broadcaster, whose efforts were not remarkable, this might have seemed ‚”folie de grandeur‚”. But the Government is re-launching its broadcaster and has licensed two other private competitors to give some competition.

See video clip interview with Chris Marler on the link below:

These remain young shoots and the challenge for Rwanda will be to turn these young shoots into healthy plants. Rwanda’s national economy is small so it will have to find a way of exporting its start-ups’ services and offer its neighbors a skills hub that they find hard to resist. But there’s something quietly impressive about what’s happening, especially as Rwandans seem to resist some of the relentless self-promotion of some of their neighbors.

* Follow Gadget on Twitter on @GadgetZA

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