Big dreams for Rwanda’s ICT sec­tor

Suc­cess story is grab­bing global at­ten­tion

Africa Renewal - - Interview - By Nirit Ben-Ari

“The in­ter­net is a needed pub­lic util­ity as much as water and elec­tric­ity,” de­clared Pres­i­dent Paul Kagame at the Trans­form Africa sum­mit held in Ki­gali, Rwanda’s cap­i­tal city, last Oc­to­ber to dis­cuss the fu­ture of broad­band in Africa.

The choice of Ki­gali as host did not sur­prise in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy (ICT) ex­perts; Mr. Kagame’s govern­ment takes ICT so se­ri­ously that it aims to cre­ate an ICT in­fra­struc­ture com­pa­ra­ble to any in the de­vel­oped world. The choice was also not sur­pris­ing since Rwanda hosted the Con­nect Africa sum­mit in 2007 that cham­pi­oned broad­band con­nec­tiv­ity for the con­ti­nent.

Rwanda be­gan to re­lent­lessly de­velop its ICT in 2000 after it adopted the Na­tional In­for­ma­tion Com­mu­ni­ca­tions In­fra­struc­ture ( NICI) pol­icy and cre­ated a long-term plan to achieve full dig­i­ti­za­tion in four five-year stages. The NICI plan was fur­ther in­te­grated into Vi­sion 2020, which is the govern­ment’s com­pre­hen­sive pro­gramme to trans­form Rwanda into a mid­dle-in­come coun­try by 2020. In fact, one of the main goals of Vi­sion 2020 is “to tran­si­tion her agrar­ian econ­omy to an in­for­ma­tion-rich, knowl­edge-based one by 2020.”

Dig­i­ti­za­tion and Vi­sion 2020

The NICI’s first stage (2000-2005) pre­pared the ground­work for ICT sec­tor, in­clud­ing es­tab­lish­ing in­sti­tu­tional, le­gal and reg­u­la­tory frame­works, as well as open­ing up the tele­com mar­ket by re­duc­ing bar­ri­ers for en­try. Cur­rently, there are 10 in­ter­net ser­vice providers, in­clud­ing MTN, TIGO, Al­tech Stream, Rwan­da­tel, among others. In 2002 there were just two in­ter­net providers with 25,000 users. To­day, there are ap­prox­i­mately 1.2 mil­lion in­ter­net users in coun­try of 12 mil­lion peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to a June 2013 re­port by Rwanda Util­i­ties Reg­u­la­tory Agency.

The govern­ment also en­acted laws to gov­ern elec­tronic mes­sages, sig­na­tures, trans­ac­tions, data pro­tec­tion, cy­ber -se­cu­rity and ICT us­age. It es­tab­lished the Rwanda Util­i­ties and Reg­u­la­tory Agency in 2002, which adopted the In­ter­na­tional Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Union ( ITU) ICT in­dus­try stan­dards.

Dur­ing the sec­ond stage (2005-2010) of the NICI plan, Rwanda con­cen­trated on en­hanc­ing ICT in­fra­struc­ture by es­tab­lish­ing a na­tional data cen­tre that cen­tral­izes in­for­ma­tion stor­age, man­age­ment and pro­tec­tion, as well as uses cloud com­put­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. In ad­di­tion, a na­tional fi­bre- op­tic back­bone net­work that con­nects Rwanda to in­ter­na­tional sea ca­bles was de­ployed, in­creas­ing in­ter­net ac­ces­si­bil­ity and af­ford­abil­ity as well as con­nect­ing Rwan­dans to global net­works.

The re­sults of these ef­forts are telling. Dur­ing this stage, for ex­am­ple, Rwanda reg­is­tered one of the high­est in­ter­net user growth rates in Africa, 8,900%, com­pared with the con­ti­nent’s growth rate of 2,450%, and the world’s av­er­age rate of 444%. In 2010, al­most ev­ery one in four pub­lic sec­tor en­ti­ties (min­istries, agen­cies, prov­inces and dis­tricts) and about a third in the pri­vate sec­tor had a web pres­ence, ac­cord­ing to the Rwanda Devel­op­ment Board, a govern­ment agency. In ad­di­tion, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, nav­i­ga­tion sur­veil­lance and air traf­fic man­age­ment sys­tem has been de­ployed to sup­port air travel in the re­gion.

Also, the ICT sub­scriber base has sig­nif­i­cantly in­creased. The num­ber of fixed-line cus­tomers more than dou­bled be­tween 2000 and 2010, mo­bile phone cus­tomers in­creased from 42,000 in 2000 to more than 3.5 mil­lion, and in­ter­net users in­creased from 1,200 to 493,900 dur­ing the same pe­riod.

The third stage, from 2011 to 2015, is fo­cused on im­prov­ing ser­vice de­liv­ery. One of the el­e­ments of this stage is the One Lap­top per Child pro­gramme—an am­bi­tious plan launched in 2008 to dis­trib­ute lap­tops and elec­tronic tablets in pri­mary schools. By late 2012, about 115,000 lap­tops had been dis­trib­uted to pri­mary school chil­dren across the coun­try.

In the fi­nal stage (2016-2020), the govern­ment hopes to fo­cus on skills, pri­vate sec­tor and com­mu­nity devel­op­ment, as well as im­prov­ing and en­hanc­ing e-govern­ment and cy­ber-se­cu­rity.

De­spite Rwanda’s ICT suc­cess story, Mr. Jean Philbert Nsen­gi­mana, the min­is­ter of youth and ICT, says that several key is­sues are not yet re­solved, in­clud­ing: “the role of the pri­vate sec­tor, reg­u­la­tion to keep broad­band af­ford­able, and dis­tribut­ing the know-how via train­ing.” But the min­is­ter is up­beat. “In just 15 years, what was once con­sid­ered as an ob­ject of lux­ury and priv­i­lege for rich

peo­ple has be­come a ba­sic ne­ces­sity for Rwan­dan ur­ban and ru­ral daily lives.”

Ex­tend­ing broad­band net­works

The govern­ment re­ports that since 2011, the na­tional fi­bre- op­tic back­bone net­work, which con­nects to an un­der­sea net­work, al­ready has links to all 30 dis­tricts of the coun­try and nine bor­der posts. The govern­ment also ne­go­ti­ated with three fi­bre- op­tic sub­ma­rine ca­ble com­pa­nies SEA­COM, TEAMS and the Eastern Africa Sub­ma­rine Ca­ble Sys­tem ( EASSy) to fi­nance the ex­ten­sion of fi­bre­op­tic ca­bles to ev­ery part of the coun­try and to in­crease fi­bre band­width ca­pac­ity to ben­e­fit schools, health cen­tres and other in­sti­tu­tions. The phys­i­cal lay­ing of the ca­bles was com­pleted last year.

An­other project signed last year with South Korea’s largest tele­com com­pany, Korea Tele­com, “will help Rwanda to [de­ploy] a high-speed (4G) broad­band net­work across the coun­try within three years. Un­der the deal, Korea Tele­com (now called KT Corp) will in­vest $140 mil­lion in in­fra­struc­ture and ex­per­tise, while Rwanda will pro­vide fi­bre- op­tic net­work as­sets, spec­trum, and a whole­sale li­cence,” re­ports the New Times news­pa­per of Rwanda.


Rwanda is also im­ple­ment­ing ICT ini­tia­tives in the health sec­tor, thanks to the open Med­i­cal Record Sys­tem (OpenMRS), an ini­tia­tive by the Re­gen­strief In­sti­tute, an Indianapolis, In­di­ana-based re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion and Part­ners in Health ( PIH), a health ad­vo­cacy and provider with head­quar­ters in Bos­ton, Mas­sachusetts, both in the US. Since it was set up in 2006, OpenMRS has been fa­cil­i­tat­ing na­tion­wide track­ing of pa­tients’ data, pro­vid­ing sup­port for nutri­tion and child health, data­base syn­chro­niza­tion tools, phar­ma­cies, among others. OpenMRS is also used by com­mu­nity health work­ers to col­lect data for mBuz­ima, an elec­tronic sys­tem that con­nects ur­ban and ru­ral hos­pi­tals, thereby en­abling peo­ple to re­ceive spe­cialised treat­ment ser­vices re­motely.

An­other e-health pro­gramme in Rwanda is the Treat­ment and Re­search AIDS Cen­tre (TRAC), which was es­tab­lished in 2005. TRAC is a dig­i­tal sys­tem that col­lects, stores, re­trieves, dis­plays

and dis­sem­i­nates critical in­for­ma­tion about drug dis­tri­bu­tion and HIV/AIDS pa­tient in­for­ma­tion. The sys­tem en­ables anti-retro­vi­ral treat­ment pro­gramme prac­ti­tion­ers to sub­mit re­ports elec­tron­i­cally and have ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion.

By im­prov­ing in­ter­ven­tions, mon­i­tor­ing and re­port­ing, these e-health so­lu­tions have in­creased ci­ti­zens’ ac­cess to health­care. Rwanda is now one of the few coun­tries in Africa that ef­fi­ciently use ICT in the health sec­tor, and stands a chance of reach­ing the Mil­len­nium Devel­op­ment Goal of im­proved ma­ter­nal health by 2015, ac­cord­ing to the Rwanda Devel­op­ment Board, a govern­ment agency.

ICT im­prov­ing trans­parency

Dig­i­ti­za­tion is not just about ac­cess and con­nec­tiv­ity, it is also about govern­ment dig­i­tiz­ing its ser­vices to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment that is less prone to cor­rup­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the World Bank, e-govern­ment en­hances trans­parency. Rwan­dan na­tional ID cards and driver’s li­censes, for ex­am­ple, are now dig­i­tized. In­di­vid­u­als can even ap­ply for a visa on­line.

The Anti-Cor­rup­tion Unit of the Rwanda Rev­enue Authority ( RRA) mon­i­tors taxes and im­port duty, and en­sures pub­lic of­fi­cials are not un­duly in­volved in ten­der and pro­cure­ment pro­cesses. To ar­chive its goal, the RRA cre­ated an ef­fi­cient on­line tax cal­cu­la­tor to as­sist small and medium busi­nesses to reg­is­ter their com­pa­nies and com­pute their taxes rather than go­ing phys­i­cally to the RRA of­fice.

Rwanda’s goal to cre­ate a world-class ICT in­fra­struc­ture is al­ready at­tract­ing con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion. A World Bank 2014 re­port ranks Rwanda sec­ond only to Mau­ri­tius in Africa in its Do­ing Busi­ness Re­port. Ad­di­tion­ally, the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum in 2013 ranked Rwanda 66th out of 148 coun­tries and third in sub-Sa­ha­ran African re­gion in the Global Com­pet­i­tive In­dex, which is an as­sess­ment of economies based on pro­duc­tiv­ity. Many be­lieve that these achievements are due largely to re­forms in its on­line busi­ness reg­is­tra­tion process.

Rwanda’s ICT devel­op­ment has had a huge im­pact on so­cioe­co­nomic devel­op­ment. But it also rep­re­sents a hope shared by many Africans that it is pos­si­ble to leapfrog into the dig­i­tal age.

One Lap­top per Child (OLPC)

Rwan­dan chil­dren learn com­put­ers in class.

One Lap­top per Child (OLPC)

A Rwan­dan school­boy with a lap­top.

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