From treetop calls to smart phones made in Rwanda

Life without a mobile phone is unimaginable today. The phone is everywhere, even in the remotest corners of this country.

It was not always like this. It is barely 20 years ago that it was introduced here. But even then it was accessible to only a few people in government and business. Its reach, too, was limited to only a few urban centres.

Some can recall a time when one had to go up a hill or climb a tree to get a network signal in order to make or receive a call.

Soon all that changed. More affordable handsets became available on the market and the mobile phone reached all parts of the country. The new sets became so popular that they were given special names depending on their shape, special features, or the majority of the people who used them. Some were called karasharamye, others gatoroshi, and bagore beza.

The quick spread of the phone was nothing short of revolutionary. It brought a radical change to our lives through the way we communicated with each other.

At the time it was still mostly voice and text messaging.

You could check on family and friends far away as regularly as you wished without leaving wherever you were or whatever you were doing. You did not have to take a bus to deliver a simple message, or write a letter and take it to the post office or bus station and ask the conductor to drop it at some shop in a certain shopping centre for onward delivery.  

As we were getting used to the new communications technology, other changes in this sector were already afoot. They, too, were to affect us in important ways. To produce this change, the interests of three categories of people - scientists and engineers, industry, and human beings generally - seemed to merge.

Scientists and engineers seem to have restless minds and itchy hands. They are constantly tinkering with things, apparently never satisfied with what they have created and always keen to make improvements on them or create new ones altogether.

Or it is because something new has come up, or simply to challenge themselves to make things that can improve our lives. Sharp brains are never idle.

Business people are always looking for ways to make more profit. Getting new products on the market or upgrading existing ones is one such way.

For some reason, human beings abhor sameness, including equality, although we keep singing about it as an essential human characteristic. Actually, we want to be different, distinct from others.

We want to stand out and not be part of the common herd. If we do not have special or innate attributes that make us unique, we contrive to create features that distinguish us from the rest.

And so, these three interests seem to have converged in the cause of innovation. A new type of mobile phone was made: the smart phone with a lot more applications that could perform hundreds of tasks. Before long, this too was in Rwanda. But it came with a hefty price tag and was out of reach of most people.

The first of those on our market was the BlackBerry. In the beginning only top government officials and business executives had them. Like the very first mobile phones in the country, these were also some sort of status symbol.

Soon others such as IPhone and Samsung came on the market. Later other, less known brands came on the market.

But just as the tendency for differentiation among humans drives the production of exclusive items, the motive for greater profits leads to mass production for a larger market.

And so some of these brands introduced more pocket friendly handsets.  Others, like Techno made even more affordable ones.

We have now come to a new episode in the story of the mobile phone in Rwanda. Yesterday, President Kagame launched a smart phone made in Rwanda.

It is called the Mara Phone, manufactured by Mara Phones Rwanda, a subsidiary of the Mara Group. The first made in Rwanda phones rolled off the production line last week.

This is by no means the last episode in this story. There will be more. Communications technology will continue to evolve. Rwanda has signalled that innovation is central to its vision of the future and its story will be interwoven with new technological developments.

This new facility must be seen in the same light as the decision to have VW vehicles built in Rwanda, the use of drones for medical deliveries, and the recent launching of satellites into space.

This is, of course, in addition to the more obvious benefits such as being proof of Rwanda’s attraction as a business destination, creation of jobs and earning revenue from domestic sales and exports.

Today Rwandans mark a new addition to Made in Rwanda products and another chapter in the story of the mobile phone in this country in the last twenty years.

That story mirrors the history of Rwanda in that period: fast moving, innovative and transformational.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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