Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 2
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, is an interconnected, growing city bustling with innovation and investor money challenging stereotypes of African cities as impoverished. As a country tainted by civil war and a genocide that left more than 2 million displaced, Rwanda is now going through a radical transformation that makes it the land of opportunity and a symbol of hope for all of Africa. The key behind this success? Rwanda has invested heavily in building up its IT infrastructure, creating a foundation for technology hubs, and more importantly, enabling access to high quality education through its science, art, and technology programs. The Rwandan model of transforming into a knowledge-based sharing economy provides a standard that all other African nations should follow in the ever-growing digital landscape.
For most of its history, Rwanda has primarily been an agrarian-based economy, with over 70 percent of its population engaged in that sector. However, coupled with the fact that the country has very little natural resources and a growing population, sustaining an economy purely through agriculture is futile. Only through diversification into the tech industry can Rwanda have a strong presence in global markets. The first step in doing that is transforming Rwanda’s economy into a collaborative one where knowledge and information is easily shared. Throughout the past decade, President Paul Kagame has sought advice from leaders in the Asian market, such as China, South Korea, Singapore, and Thailand, where there is a history of rapid urbanization and growth. These key ties have not brought in foreign investment, as well as the ability to fully revamp the countries’ IT infrastructure, with 95 percent of Rwanda now covered by 4G/LTE networks through support of Korean Telecom. Having a digitally-connected Rwanda is crucial for Kagame’s Vision 2020 plan of being a knowledge-based middle-income country, especially on a continent where 60 percent of the population is not yet connected to the internet.
A connected Rwanda brings in opportunities for new businesses and innovative ideas to help solve systemic problems. Understanding the potential for growth, the government of Rwanda has made it easier to launch startups through pro-business laws, lenient visa policies, free workspaces for entrepreneurs, and quick business registration processes, policies which have catapulted Rwanda to rank 29th in the World Bank’s 2019 Ease of Doing Business Report. This resulted in the creation of startups such as SafeMotos, Kigali’s ride hailing app that also hopes to help curb the number of traffic collisions, or drone startups like Zipline responsible for quickly and efficiently delivering medical equipment to hospitals, saving lives. These new business opportunities also have a hand in economic performance, as the per capita gross domestic product (GDP) has averaged around 7.5 percent annually during the past decade while according to The World Bank, poverty has declined from 59 percent to 39 percent since 2001.
Along with the economic growth, there has been an increase in incentive for purchasing African-made products. In 2017, Rwanda became home to Latin American company Positivo BGH in order to mass produce locally assembled laptops. These efforts of creating Africa’s first laptops were incentivized directly by the governments “One Laptop Per Child” policy of connecting the Rwandan education system to the internet. Following the theme of connecting the unconnected, Rwanda’s Mara Group also produced Africa’s first “home-grown” smartphones, the Mara X and Mara Z, during October of this year. The entirety of the phone’s manufacturing process -- from building out the motherboards to sourcing the thousands of pieces required in a smartphone -- has been entirely done in Rwanda. Priced competitively at around $130 USD, Mara Group plans on taking advantage of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement that is due to begin next year to boost sales across Africa and increase Rwanda’s smartphone usage, which is currently at 15 percent.
Making sure that Rwanda has the necessary IT infrastructure and business opportunities is only one piece of the puzzle in order to become a regional technology hub and have a knowledge-based shared economy. Enabling access to education is perhaps the most important ingredient in order to bring Rwanda to middle-income status. With a new $2 billion USD campus for Carnegie Mellon University in Kigali, Kagame hopes to ensure that Rwanda attracts and creates the top talents for robotics and Internet-of-Things infrastructure. The government has also developed a new national strategy to incorporate Information and Communication Technology (ICT) within the education system. The Rwanda Education Commons aims to boost the literacy rate and provide access to high quality education throughout the country. Government agreements with companies like Andela have also made significant impact in producing a technology-literate workforce. Through hosting boot camps, these companies have agreed to recruit and train hundreds of Rwandans in software development.
Although Rwanda has made strides towards its Vision 2020 goals, there are still significant hurdles that the country has to overcome. The resulting fragmentation of such a society undergoing accelerated development is a key issue to remember, especially in a country where fragmentation haunts its past. As a predominantly rural country, most of Rwanda’s population lives off of subsistence farming and only half the total households have access to electricity. Honing in on solely improving the quality of life in Rwanda’s cities like Kigali in the hopes to project a “New Rwanda” to investors will only lead to major systemic issues if the rural population is left unaccounted for. Therefore, more government investments, such as the Rural Electrification Strategy program, need to be put in place to improve rural Rwanda. Making sustainable efforts in building out the necessary IT infrastructure and ensuring that there is an educated workforce will help bring business opportunities and reduce reliance on other countries, just as it has done in Rwanda. These key developments have not only spurred Rwanda’s own techno-revolution, but have also created an optimistic future where the “Made in Africa” tag is much more prevalent.