Rwanda aiming to become information technology hub for sub-Saharan Africa

Rwanda won an international award this year for the dubious distinction of turning the human waste of 1,500 prisoners into useable gas — a necessary evil in a country plagued by water shortages and power outages that’s desperately seeking alternative energy sources.Rwanda, which once made headlines for decimating its population, now has designs on becoming a technology hub for sub-Saharan Africa to drive other sectors of the economy and join the industrialized world. Yet despite this mandate, the roadblocks are many — everything from competition from neighbouring countries, the international community’s lingering memories of Rwanda’s genocidal past, a manpower shortage, and complaints about limited government assistance for tech companies.
The government adopted the so-called Vision 20/20 policy a few years ago to modernize this agriculturally based country, says Rapheal Mmasi, interim executive director of the Rwanda Information Technology Authority in Kigali.
“Rwanda is a small country. To compete with other big countries which are also dependent on agriculture is not viable,” says Mmasi. He says the only way that Rwanda — which is injecting US$100 million a year into a technology sector made up of 81 firms — may progress more rapidly is to harness information communications technology that will increase the nation’s productivity in areas such as education and health.Only a fraction of the country’s students are admitted to limited university spaces and providing health services to the rural population has been problematic. Mmasi says greater efforts to adopt technology will nurture alternative educational methods such as e-learning and permit real-time monitoring of drug availability and disease among patients.
In its bid to become an IT capital, Rwanda is setting up call centres to serve Africa and Europe, and building a high-technology park to develop software, hardware and related technologies, he says. “Right now the government has a system with the private sector to develop …affordable products for the region. And for that, the government also removed the taxes and the VAT (value-added tax) from IT equipment.”
Vision 20/20 is divided into increments of five years, with 2005 marking the end of the first quarter. Mmasi says following an intensive review, the government realized it had achieved only 26 per cent of its goals for the first five years: conducting pilot projects in telemedicine; building a fibre-optic network for all public buildings; installing Internet access, fax, phone, TV and radio services in rural community centres; equipping 400 out of 570 schools with computers; and equipping 40 schools in Kigali with Internet access.
Rwanda boasts some advantages in its endeavour. Mmasi says it is one of the few countries implementing an ICT policy in Africa. “The main reason is good political leadership” he says, under President Paul Kagame, who aims to raise the population to middle-income status by carving out an information-based economy embracing everything from e-commerce to e-government.
On the downside, “a lot of educated people were killed or they were involved in genocide and have run out of the country,” says professor Silas Lwakabamba, rector of the Kigali Institute of Science, Technology and Management (KIST). Upon assuming power following the massacre, he says, the new government realized it lacked a workforce trained in technology to catapult forward the tiny country of eight million. So in 1997 it established KIST, which has produced more than 1,000 graduates specializing in software development and management, computer networking and hardware maintenance. Yet women account for only 25 per cent of those graduates, even though they make up more than half the population.
Also hampering the country’s technology plans are frequent power outages, though the government says there will be enough generators to resolve all energy woes by the end of next year.
International donors provide money to buy IT equipment, but the government lacks the expertise to know which products are best and has been slow to hire consultants, adds Ramesh Gopalan, country head of MFI Office Solutions in Kigali, whose business sells hardware, software, networking and imaging products.

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