In Rwanda the future is today

Today, innovations and inventions of every kind happen at a pace and regularity that far outstrips the imagination of fiction writers that so captivated us in the past.

Some of us grew up reading and enjoying science fiction. We read H.G Wells’ The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Two Thousand Leagues under the Sea, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and many more.

It was so much fun and transported us to new worlds of wonderful and unimagined inventions. These were not simply works of fiction but also of human genius. They promised a brighter, immensely livable world, full of exciting gadgets and machines, and free of too much toil and drudgery.

The stuff of such fiction was so futuristic that some did not think it would ever happen in this life and in this world. Still, it was fascinating enough to raise the curiosity of young people and inspire the career choices of some of them.

We now know that those inventions that appeared so far ahead of their time actually came to be in our lifetime and on this earth.

And today innovations and inventions of every kind happen at a pace and regularity that far outstrips the imagination of fiction writers that so captivated us in the past.

Why am I going on about science fiction of a bygone era? It is not for nostalgia or the love of that particular literary genre. Today’s reality is actually yesterday’s fiction.

And in Rwanda’s case, its story of transformation is particularly close to the stuff of science fiction both in its nature and pace.

Twenty-five years ago, Rwandans were bored with living in unexciting times too rooted in the past to permit fast movement into the future and a higher income status. They decided that only a knowledge-based economy would propel them there in a little over twenty years.

That was alright as ambitions go. But was it achievable? Some had doubts, but many more had stronger conviction.

The vehicle for catapulting the country there was science and technology, principally ICT, starting with schools.

Again some laughed. ICT and advanced technology in this country? Get real. There are more pressing priorities and easier-to-do things.

For these the whole vision sounded like something lifted out of science fiction. Seductive yes, but unreachable; desirable but not yet of this time and place. Better to wait for all the basics to be in place.

Those who had conceived the vision kept the faith and worked to translate it into reality. And so today we are not talking about the desktop computer in a school lab doing ordinary operations, but of more complex things like coding to get it to do even more of what we desire to get to the future we have set our eyes on. For this a coding school was inaugurated recently.

Now, not many of us know what that is. Put simply, coding is writing the language of the computer to enable it perform what we instruct it to do. For every computer operation and application, there is a code behind it.

Students at the coding school, and at the four others planned, will be learning to create and write those codes. Who would have thought twenty five years ago that young Rwandans would be doing that?

Few remember there were doubts and sneers when the choice of technology was made. So used are we to what only a few years ago appeared like fantasy that now passengers in public service vehicles can complain about poor internet services on buses or failings in the tap and go fare payment system more than the actual fare.

The other day we launched a communications satellite in space, one of many to come. Students from what until recently was a remote island in Lake Kivu aptly named it Icyerekezo (vision). With it in the sky, their island will no longer be remote.

A few days later, we read that Rwanda plans to hold an African air show in the next few years. Another dream? It will be reality before you wake up. Who would have imagined that we would be thinking of putting on an air show when we didn’t even have an airline?

These come after another innovation: the introduction of drones to deliver medical supplies across the country.

For all these to happen, the right infrastructure must be in place. Sometime ago, a fibre-optic network was laid across the country. Again some questioned what it was for. Who would use it? Now we know.

Then came 4G LTE or Fourth Generation Long Term Evolution mobile network technology.  It is meant to improve wireless broadband speed that modern communication and data demand. By mid-last year, 4G LTE coverage of Rwanda was up to 95%.

We now have a network of academic institutions to go with that physical and technological infrastructure. We have mentioned the coding school. There are others, such as the University of Rwanda’s College of Science and Technology, Carnegie Mellon University-Africa and the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS).

The future that once looked very distant is already here with us. Some of us have had double pleasure of enjoying reading science fiction and seeing it become reality. It delighted us and took us to times and places, and showed us creations, that we thought only existed in the imagination.

Now we can actually enjoy being present in those times and places and using those inventions. The reality is stronger than fiction.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.