Kinyarwanda Computing: Is it real or fiction?

Since September 2006, we have heard on radio, seen on TV, read in the newspapers, including "The New Times", that Kinyarwanda computing was almost at hand: computer systems were being translated to Kinyarwanda, commonly used software applications were also being translated, making it easy for the average Rwandan to surf the web, to read, write, exchange and create news, messages and information on computer platforms.

Since September 2006, we have heard on radio, seen on TV, read in the newspapers, including "The New Times", that Kinyarwanda computing was almost at hand: computer systems were being translated to Kinyarwanda, commonly used software applications were also being translated, making it easy for the average Rwandan to surf the web, to read, write, exchange and create news, messages and information on computer platforms.

I wanted to bring you the status of this important project and find out if this project is real or fiction. I visited Electronic Tools Company, aka E-Tools, and I was given access to its CEO, Antoine Bigirimana. That is when I saw a computer loaded with Kinyarwanda computing. It is very real!

There is a document called NICI-2010 that contains the ICT plan for the 5 years starting in 2006 and ending in 2010; this is the plan that is being implemented by a government organization called RITA. NICI stands for National Information and Communication Infrastructure. RITA stands for Rwanda Information Technology Authority.

The NICI-2010 plan provides a due date of Second Quarter of 2007 (June 2007) for providing the necessary interface for ICT equipment and software in Rwanda’s own language, Kinyarwanda.

A large segment of the rural population does not have competence in English or French (two languages common to the rest of the population). Although efforts are under way to teach these two languages, there is a need for the time being to provide a suitable interface to ICT equipment and ‘Planned Actions’ that the rural population can use. Without such an interface, this segment will remain digitally challenged.

The Planned Action proposes the conversion of a variety of tools from their native language (usually English or French) into Kinyarwanda.

The Operating Systems considered by NICI-2010 are Linux and Microsoft Windows. Office Productivity Tools considered are: Linux FireFox Web Browser, Microsoft Internet Explorer, Linux OpenOffice and Microsoft Office.

Electronic Tools Company (E-Tools) has been working on translation of Linux Operating Systems and OpenOffice Productivity Tools since the beginning of 2005. What was started by Antoine Bigirimana as a community project by volunteers in Kigali and in National University of Rwanda (NUR) quickly turned into one company (E-Tools) non-profit and expensive effort because everybody else wanted to be paid and no money was forthcoming for the project from any other stakeholder.

For Windows Operating Systems, E-Tools has partnered with Microsoft; however the available funding from Microsoft is extremely insufficient due to the fact that Rwandan market is very small and the return on any Microsoft investment in Rwanda is very small. Microsoft became interested in converting Windows to Kinyarwanda after witnessing the interest generated by Linux in Kinyarwanda. Electronic Tools Company (E-Tools) has done a lot of work on Kinyarwanda computing with its own funding. Even though it has received a small grant from Microsoft, to date, E-Tools has spent a lot of its own money and unfortunately this money is non-recoverable because this work cannot generate any profit.I have been following its development and actually E-Tools released an initial version of Linux translation at Rwanda Expo 2006 and won the overall Expo 2006 Award. It was the first time Rwandans could use an Internet Browser in Kinyarwanda and could use Office Tools with menus and commands in Kinyarwanda.

However, the existence of Software in Kinyarwanda does not guarantee access for the population that is foreign-language challenged (an estimated 90% of Rwandans). For that to happen, the software has to be available in sufficient number of Telecenters and Community Centers. The cost to end user has to be near zero as most Rwandans are poor. Software Support by competent staff has to be available on a daily basis. This staff and their students need adequate training material.

The following work was done: development and testing of Kinyarwanda user interface for Linux, FireFox and OpenOffice; initial Release and Support for Linux, FireFox and OpenOffice in Kinyarwanda; continuously translate the strings as the programs get updated; on-going development of Kinyarwanda Files to be embedded in Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office; note: for Linux, the work is done in such manner that all Linux distributions have Kinyarwanda as one of the locals.

Nonetheless, there will be a release of Windows/Office Vista in Kinyarwanda by the end of the year 2008 by Microsoft and E-Tools. There have already been two initial releases of Linux/FireFox browser/OpenOffice in Kinyarwanda. The deployment of Kinyarwanda computing in the countryside is really the responsibility of RITA. It should be done through the 1000 telecenters on the thousand hills.

The author can be reached at: johngahindiro@yahoo.com

 

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