The country is achieving fame for setting its mind on a seemingly impossible goal and often achieving it, or getting close enough. The switch to English is a case in point. In 2008, Rwanda decided it would change the language of instruction in schools from French to English, virtually overnight.
Instead of a gradual process which would have been slower but kinder to students and pupils, Rwanda opted for the swift, brutal version, ignoring advice to the contrary. Dr John Rutayisire, director of the Rwanda Education Board, says, “We were not prepared to wait for the conventional 10 or 20 years to adopt a more strategic longer plan, because the interests of this country are more paramount than the difficulties that people can face in the shorter term.”
And the government certainly seems serious about becoming an IT hub. More than 4,500km of fibre-optic cable has been laid across the country to ensure broadband access in all parts of the country. Although now completely operated by the private sector, the government initially injected $120m and 2,300km of cable to kick-start the programme.
Rwanda invited the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to set up a campus in Rwanda. It now offer its world-famous ICT master’s programme to Rwandan students, hoping to develop the first wave of home-grown Rwandan software designers. The government subsidises course fees for East African citizens and the course is exactly the same as the masters offered at CMU’s Pittsburgh campus in the US.
While this is undoubtedly a major boost to Rwanda’s IT dream, it is hampered by the low quality of teaching at undergraduate level at Rwanda’s universities. The government has other tools in its armoury when it comes to IT development: it has pledged that 4G internet is coming to Rwanda, and says the ground-breaking of a new ICT park in a dedicated area of Kigali is due to start this year.
An innovative ICT networking hub called the kLab where budding software designers can meet, work and have reliable access to power and internet has been up and running for a few years now. One of the most fashionable hang-outs in Kigali, with its coffee shop, table football and modern decor, it is seen as a key part of Rwanda’s IT development. Young Rwandan software designers and IT entrepreneurs can meet with older, more experienced people, who mentor them and offer guidance on projects.
A Miss Geek Rwanda contest was launched there this year in response to the much-derided Miss Rwanda contest. The winner was a young woman who had designed an app for cattle owners to keep track of important dates for the care and breeding of their animals. In a country where cow owning is hugely culturally important, this was seen as an innovative and useful idea.
Harsh realities get in the way
Didier Nkurikiyimfura, Director General of ICT at Rwanda’s Ministry of Youth and ICT, says the Rwandan government has “the highest level of commitment to IT”. He cites a World Bank study which says a 10% increase in broadband in a country translates to 0.8-1.3% increase in GDP, and says this thinking guides the government’s policy on IT.
While the IT dream sounds great and, knowing what we do about Rwanda, it may even succeed, there are some major barriers to transforming the country in this way. Rwanda has a debilitating lack of electricity and has to pay a private company to generate around 1/6th of the electricity that it does have. Power blackouts remain common across the country and many rural areas do not even have electricity. In 2012 only around 16% of the country had access to electricity. And what is available is expensive, often prohibitively so for businesses. With this in mind, plans for 4G internet and IT networking spaces sound faintly ridiculous. When most of your population is struggling to feed itself, why would they be interested in owning a smartphone? But Rwanda sees its IT dream as the best way to build itself a new economy.
The low quality of education is also an urgent problem affecting the IT plans. Few students educated solely in Rwanda are ready to become leading lights in the IT revolution, and even fewer would be able to join a masters course offered by CMU. But Rwanda would again point to its track record of getting things done, and it sees that it has little choice but to make this work.
As President Kagame said in the Vision 2020 document published 14 years ago: “Some will say that this is too ambitious and that we are not being realistic when we set this goal. Others say that it is a dream. But, what choice does Rwanda have? To remain in the current situation is simply unacceptable for the Rwandan people.”