Demystifying ICT: Grooming Rwanda’s teen IT experts

When the government reined in to take a thorny path and turn Rwanda into an ICT hub for the region, some of us jumped on the bandwagon but only with a passive role as cheer leaders and pessimistic bystanders. For the cynics, the ICT roadmap wrongly seemed over ambitious, stretched and unrealistic for Rwanda, just recovering from the aftermath of the 1994 Tutsi genocide. 
A group of Rwandan teens show their certificates after training on Visual Basic in Kigali recently.
A group of Rwandan teens show their certificates after training on Visual Basic in Kigali recently.

When the government reined in to take a thorny path and turn Rwanda into an ICT hub for the region, some of us jumped on the bandwagon but only with a passive role as cheer leaders and pessimistic bystanders. 

For the cynics, the ICT roadmap wrongly seemed over ambitious, stretched and unrealistic for Rwanda, just recovering from the aftermath of the 1994 Tutsi genocide. 

But not for a group of teens aged between 10 and 13 from Green Hills Academy, who have decided to walk the talk. As part of the next generation, they are well steered to power Rwanda into an ICT hub. And nothing will stand in their way.

Some of these kids were probably only five years old when Rwanda rolled out the National Information and Communication Infrastructure (NICI 2010), but it has taken them just a few months to master IT programmes that most adults do not understand and would take years to grasp. 

Microsoft Visual Basic Studio 6.0, Access, Excel, Encarta, Power Point Internet, graphics make part of a long list of programmes. 

With Visual Basic (VB 6), you can create any program depending on one’s objective. For example, you can create educational programs to teach science, mathematics, language, history, geography and so on. You can also create financial and accounting programs to make you a more efficient accountant or financial controller.

What may seem almost bizarre is not the Visual Basic programme per se, but the kind of projects that these youngsters have used it (Visual Basic) to create.

It takes them only ten minutes to manipulate Visual Basic codes and create a data entry form for a transport company. Take an example of one project covering ONATRACOM, the government owned transport firm.

The teens are in advanced stages in developing Rwanda’s first-ever Transport Management Information System (MIS) covering data entry projects for drivers’ details, passenger ticketing and bus control.

Are you surprised! Wait until you’re introduced to similar ones created to cover data entry systems for book keeping and document filing, banks and insurance firms.

Bill Gates is role model

But where do those teens get the drive at such a tender age? One of them, 13-year-old Ian Kigenza, dreams of developing his knowledge on ICT to become a software engineer like Bill Gates.

He says: “If I work hard with determination, it will be easy to accomplish because I think the world is moving through “a technology phase”.

I plan on making software to help in the development of Rwanda and Africa if possible. I can accomplish this task alongside my counterparts.

Like any other child of my age, I thought that a computer was useless without internet, but I was wrong; there are so many interesting and educational applications.”

Kigenza does not betray his ambition of turning into a genius and live his childhood dream of becoming an IT consultant.  The young man’s dreams are to develop his IT skills at MIT and, like his role model, use IT skills to make a fortune and touch the lives of the world’s poor. You guessed right, the model is non other than Bill Gates, the world’s renowned billionaire.

Well, here is food for thought. Have you ever wondered how traffic lights work? For the teens, this is just a computer game. Ten-year-old Andrew Kaze astonished adults as he took them through the process of creating traffic light controls and timing. It beats one’s understanding how a teen can know so much. Here is the answer.

Kaze is one of the 10 pioneer teens and teenagers benefiting from an ongoing training programme initiated at the Regional ICT Training and Research Centre (RITC), based at Kigali Institute of Science and Technology.

Just like Kaze, most of his colleagues have a shared dream of imitating Bill Gates and hope against all odds to set Rwanda on a new path.

Big Dreams

In addition to developing software, Calvin Cyusa and Joseph Kimenyi want to “train other people so they get the knowledge”, while Chester Gisa and Park Udahemuka plan to set up consultancy firms, develop new software and go for further studies in IT.

But Jules Rwigema would like to be “a renowned software developer” employing many people worldwide and play a big role in his country’s development.

Sounding even more optimistic, 13-year-old Alvin S. Junior sets his goals higher: “The knowledge I acquired from RITC training is great, but I would like to learn even more programming language and be able to develop unique software and sell them to powerful institutions like NASA, this is a long term dream. My immediate term dream will be realised when ONATRACOM begins to use the software my friends and I are developing”.

With similar high hopes is eleven-year old Brian Cyizere who thinks the new generation should rely a lot on ICT. “I learnt a lot from that training course and it really got me into computers a lot more. My ambition is to study computers and use them to help my country and people in different ways.

Like his colleagues, Brian’s dream is to start a software manufacturing company, courtesy of the parents and trainers who enabled the youngsters to enroll for the IT programme that sharpened their imagination at a tender age.

With concern for the poor, their friend Alan Nshuti, who is 11 years old, wants to develop software and use part of the earnings “for humanitarian work and be able to meet Bill Gates”.

Alan’s cherished dream is to pass on knowledge to young children and encourage them to believe in themselves. He says: “every child has to know that the sky is the limit and that they can do anything they set themselves at”.

Such high ambitions result from appropriate grooming. Kudo to their parents, for as the Kinyarwanda saying goes, “umwana apfa mw’iterura”, literally meaning, lack of initial parental guidance spoils a child.

It is by no accident that the teenagers enrolled at the centre and selected projects that will not only enhance their learning but also generate income in future.

Bridging the digital divide

It all started as a pilot programme initiated in December last year by one Jerome Gasana, the Director of RITC, with moral support from several of his colleagues.  But little did he imagine at that stage that the programme would interest so many in such a short time.

“My initial idea was to create some activities for these young ones and keep them busy with constructive work during holidays, but with a target of equipping them to play a future vital role in ICT,” Jerome explained, with visible affection for the successful programme. 

For a start, the training first zeroed on a set of pioneer trainees better equipped with laptops and desktops to accomplish the tasks. To the young trainees, owning such expensive laptops only motivated their urge to enroll for the training and succeed. 

With no time to waste, the centre has already enrolled a second intake of 12 children aged between 9 and 13, who will create a Management Information System for restaurants using Visual Basic 6.0.

With this tool, restaurant owners are able to monitor service delivery, worker performance and customer satisfaction among others. One of the upcoming IT specialists under training is a young lady named Pearl.

She cannot wait to utilize these skills in future to make a fortune by creating her own games, videos and cartoon. 

We have all heard of the high sounding IT terms like digitalization, bridging the digital divide, global village, name it. But to Jerome, the process begins at the bottom end by training and equipping young people with skills at a tender age when their retention capacity and interest is high.

This in turn gets a multiplier effect as the initial bunch turns into trainers of trainees and, instead of becoming theorists, work out or implement IT projects that directly impact on the lives of the common man. That is the short cut to creating a digital Rwanda.   

True to this dream, the next stage of the IT programme for teens has been to perfect the course modeled with a Rwandan touch on programmes undertaken by institutions like Cambridge University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Upon completion, the finalists will be tested against international standards as a measure for quality output for the market.

What is striking is the interest the programme has generated among both parents and children.

Those that found the programme interesting include the Director of ICT in the President’s Office, David Kanamugire, who visited the pioneer group during training and was amazed by the tremendous transformation. While jokingly hitting at old guards, the official challenged IT specialists to gain more relevant skills or risk losing jobs to such upcoming teen experts.

Rolling out opportunity

From an initial enrolment of 10 students, the programme has expanded to take on over sixty members studying on Wednesday, morning and afternoon sessions.

Only Frw 30,000 for tuition guarantees a place for a child to learn both the basics and complete IT package that most adults only find challenging at the work place even after completing university. 

Also, through partnership with Imbuto Foundation, the IT programme benefited an additional 100 vulnerable students across several schools, yet that is only a starter for an improved outreach. 

Now the onus is now on the adults to cope. Drawing from experiences with her son, one of the parents summed it up well with a call on all Rwandans to boost children’s morale for learning, especially IT related courses. “Educational technology is my area of interest and even though I’m relatively intelligent, I withdrew from visual basic class when I was in my third year of university, because it was too taxing and yet I had too many credits I was pursuing. Seeing these sons and daughters of ours do VB is just amazing. With such innovative and confident youngsters, there is no doubt “the future of our country is bright”.

With such programmes that target and initiate young people into vital sectors, Rwanda would be well positioned to roll out well entrenched IT experts with keen interest and know how into the technology field.

That would mark the end of reports regarding university graduates who lack vital skills at workplaces.  As the saying goes, it is better to bend a stick when it is still young”.

There is this recent media report that President Kagame was incensed by lack of basic skills on the part of university graduates to the extent of failing to write a simple application letter.  But for these teen IT experts, this is just another field day.

Cashiers and data entry clerks have had to contend with their criticisms as the youngsters find fault with data entry systems of institutions they visit accompanied by their parents.

Training programmes like that run by RITC have come in handy to bridge the basic skills gap even at a lower level such that young Rwandans can embrace IT and play a vital role as skilled technicians not IT mediocre.

After this initial first phase that covered basics in Microsoft Visual Basics, Access, Excel, Encarta, Power Point, RITC is set to start a second phase for three months that will offer advanced programmes of the same course.

Jerome reveals that this is going to kick start a nationwide coverage, and bring on board other institutions for financial and basic support.

But the Regional ICT Training and Research Centre has also played other roles to equip pupils with IT skills.  In line with its vision, the centre is charged with the distribution and maintenance of the small machine with a mission - One laptop per Child (OLPC). 

Talking about such IT initiatives brings to the fore President Kagame’s recent observation that “the possession of technology, and the means to deploy it, will create surpluses of capital for those of us who are prepared.”

For his role in paving Rwanda’s recovery path, President Kagame was recently recognized as winner for the policy category of the World Technology Award by the World Technology Network in New York on 16 July 2009. Winners are individuals and organizations recognized by peers as using technology with great potential to have significant impact on society and nations.  

After receiving an addition to a long chain of awards, President Kagame reminded the gathering about the plight of the poor with touching message.

He said: “for those who stand outside the domain of technology, denied access by lack of education or resources or power, blocked by policies that are outdated and unjust; the future seems devoid of hope for positive change, for upgrading one’s own life, for improving the possibilities of one’s family.”

As they say, the world has two kinds of people – those who watch things happen, and those that make things happen. As the government tries to deliver the promised IT hub, our youngsters have the President’s vision at heart with a clear dream of becoming IT consultants.

The youngsters have joined hands to take on the bull by its horns and be counted among those that created Rwanda’s Silicon Valley, with a humble beginning but big mission of recreating America’s IT hub at the heart of Africa, in Rwanda.

Ends

 

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