The African Jotter

How Rwanda is Becoming an African Tech Powerhouse

When most people think about Rwanda, what immediately comes to mind is genocide. Yes, in 1994, Rwanda, a country with two major ethnic groups (Hutus and Tutsis), witnessed one of the worst genocides in world history. Over 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis were killed in during that period. No doubt, that event was a significant watershed in the history of Rwanda.

However since that event, Rwanda, under the leadership of Paul Kagame, has tried to move on. And over the last 20 years, the tiny African nation has earned a name for itself as an African tech powerhouse.

Despite its size and population, the country is presently leading the continent in the adoption and development of a few interesting technologies. From developing robust telecom infrastructures to adopting drone technology, Rwanda is at the forefront and is looking to become an African tech powerhouse.

In this article, I discuss several ways Rwanda is leading the African continent technologically. But first, let’s take a look at why the country has gone the take route. Why has it made technological advancement, innovations and investment a centrepiece policy?

Why Rwanda Pays Attention to Technology

When most countries come out of a crisis, the government focuses its resources on infrastructural development and rebuilding the economy. And Rwanda was no different.

From the ashes of the genocide, the Rwandan government has done a lot of work over the last 24 years to revive the economy. Under the leadership of former rebel leader, Paul Kagame, the country has remained relatively peaceful, an important ingredient for economic growth.

However development planning in Rwanda is limited by natural forces. The country is landlocked and is quite small in size. It also has no highly valuable natural resources such as gold, uranium, diamonds or oil.

“This means the only way for us to move forward and to build our future is to empower people and make good use of technology,” said Claudette Irere, director general at Rwanda’s Ministry of Youth and Information and Communication Technology

As a result, this forced the country to focus on niche tech market to grow its economy. It technological pursuits were laid down in its “Vision 2020” goals. These are strategies it seeks to transform the country from a low-income, agriculture-based economy to a knowledge-based, service-oriented economy with middle-income country status by 2020.

And these efforts have started yielding results. Between 2001 and 2014, the economy grew at an average 8% annually. And technology has been key to this growth.

How Rwanda Leads Africa’s Technology Landscape

Since the introduction of Vision 2020 goals, Rwanda has prioritised technology in it development plans. Through infrastructural development, education and other support, technology is becoming mainstream in the country.

For Instance, in 2005 the country had limited telephony and internet access. But in 2013, the government signed a deal with South Korean company to develop 4G/LTE network for high high-speed Internet access to more than two-third of Rwandans within three years. By February 2018, 4G/LTE services was available in 95% of the country.

Telecom services also got a huge boost through a $100 million investment that laced 4,500km fiber optics network across the country.

How Rwanda is Becoming an African Tech Powerhouse

Rwanda is also on the verge of setting up the first smartphone manufacturing company in Africa. Mara Corporation, an East African company, has committed significant resources to allow local manufacturing of smartphones. The factory is set to open in April 2019 and will provide jobs to up to 20,000 people.

Educational Support

Educationally, Rwanda put in place several projects and policies to increase the depth of technology among young people.

One example is the “One Laptop Per Child” project which aims to make ICT devices available across primary schools. Through government funding, the project has successfully provided 203,000 laptops to about 407 schools.

Also, the government also struck a partnership agreement with the Rwandan branch of the Carnegie Mellon University. Through this partnership, the university will provide IT, electrical and computer engineering education and degree in the country.

And in 2018, the president, Paul Kagame, gave the green light to a partnership proposal from Andela. Through the partnership, the Nigerian company, will launch a Pan-African hub in the country.

Government Support for Tech Companies and Hubs

Now unlike other African countries, Rwanda’s government alone decides the country’s tech framework and activities. This is very unusual, and will most definitely stiffen innovation in the long run. However presently, it has helped the country direct its energy and resources that could be key to its future.

Over the years, the country has given a lot of support to tech initiatives and novel ventures in the country. For instance, in partnership with US startup, Zipline, the country started the world’s first ever national drone delivery program in 2016.

The government also signed a deal with South American company Positivo BGH, to produce “made in Rwanda” laptops. The company will produce 150,000 laptops yearly, based on the terms of the agreement.

And in admiration for its tech strides, the country’s capital has been host to quite a few tech conferences and summits, like the “Transform Africa Summit” hosted in May. It also hosts the hugely popular “Africa Tech Summit” in Kigali, the country’s capital.

Interestingly, during the 2019 edition of the Africa Tech Summit, Nigerian company, Co-Creation Hub (CcHub), announced of the CcHub Design Lab. The design lab is a $1.1 million facility providing a space for product designers, engineers, scientists and stakeholders to explore the application of emerging technologies to solve various African challenges.

Rwanda Still Has Challenges To Consider

Despite the impressive technological development Rwanda has witnessed over the years, the country still has a few important issues to work on.

The first and most important is the undemocratic nature of the country. Although it has held periodic elections since the start of the 21st century, Rwanda’s current president, Paul Kagame, has ruled the country since 1994. His strong grip on power has fragmented opposition parties and has pushed many critics into exile. His hold on power has masked deep democratic challenges that could affect the country in the long term.

Second, and flowing from the first, Rwanda pursues a strong state-led economy. All private initiatives, investments and agendas are scrutinized and approved by the government before they are given the green light. This issue largely stunts the growth of the country’s tech ecosystem and further leads to government control of what technology can be built and by who.

Additionally, with strong government control over the media, there’s no way to tell how well the country is growing. Much of the news emanating from the country has been wholly positive, aside from the political issues which are glaring. With little toleration for opposition, there’s little guarantee beyond what the government says, that the country is really what it is.

Nevertheless, it is undisputed, Rwanda is an African tech powerhouse at the moment. It’s support for the ecosystem is reassuring, but it needs to work on other issues that would be critical to its growth.