Bold Rwanda takes broadband leap

Landlocked Rwanda is weeks away from completing a link to a new fibre-optic network promising high-speed internet for East Africa, officials say. Engineers expect the capital, Kigali, to be connected to newly-arrived undersea cables in Kenya by November.

Landlocked Rwanda is weeks away from completing a link to a new fibre-optic network promising high-speed internet for East Africa, officials say.

Engineers expect the capital, Kigali, to be connected to newly-arrived undersea cables in Kenya by November.

A national fibre-optic ring is due to go online early in 2010.
The new link is the key part of a plan to transform Rwanda from an impoverished, agricultural society into a hi-tech economic innovator.

Most of Rwanda’s nine million inhabitants still make a living from small-scale farming, and much of the country remains without basic services - including a reliable electricity supply.

Yet 15 years after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, which saw over 1 million Rwandans brutally murdered, the government - led by President Paul Kagame, appears determined to push ahead with development on multiple fronts.

Rwanda remains one of the developing countries in the world, but has a fast-growing population, of which more than 50percent are aged 14 or under.

“We’re in a hurry,” Patrick Nyirishema told the BBC. “In five or 10 years’ time, all those people are going to be looking for jobs.”

Mr Nyirishema, a slight man of 34, took up his post at the helm of Rwanda’s Information Technology Authority just one week ago. He found 160 ongoing projects in his in-tray.

“Rwanda is the most densely-populated country in the continent, and most of our people are subsistence farmers,” he said.

“We can’t wait until we have water, until we have built roads, before we get round to ICT (information and communications technology). We have to do everything at the same time.”

Held back

Evidence of Africa’s need for faster connectivity is easy to spot.

In central Kigali, towering satellite dishes belonging to one private company bring in most of the country’s existing internet bandwidth.

As in other parts of East Africa which have long relied on satellite connections, the links are in the hands of a handful of operators and are sold on at high prices way out of reach of most ordinary Rwandans.

For a country which has publicly stated an ambition to turn itself into “the Singapore of Africa” - a globally important centre for business and communications - the reliance on satellite has held the country back.

Most Rwandans lack significant computer skills and few have regular access to the internet. Many of those who do are yet to explore the web’s full potential.

“I first used the internet one year ago,” said Carine Umulisa, a 24-year-old Kigali student.

“I sometimes go to the cyber cafe and I send messages to my family. It’s very expensive now. But it’s important for Rwanda to develop technology.”

Even where there is bandwidth, people struggle with unpredictable connections. A bus carrying 20 laptop computers is currently travelling the country offering internet services to students and local business people.

When BBC News visited the bus in Kamonyi district, an area just 30 minutes’ drive from Kigali but without any mains electricity, the connection was so erratic that the young people using the facility were unable even to sign up for their first e-mail account.

Great leap forward

At the national stadium in Kigali, inconspicuous antennae tethered to a floodlight pylon are the only outward sign of one of Rwanda’s most arresting projects.

When operational, the antennae will blanket the city with a WiBro (Wireless Broadband) signal - a state-of-the-art South Korean wireless protocol - sometimes known as Wimax - designed to funnel data at high speed to new 4G mobile devices.

It is a clear statement of intent - building a 21st Century mobile data network in a country where many people still eke out a 19th Century existence.

But officials brush off suggestions that the WiBro network could be too niche, or that the cost of compatible devices will be prohibitively high. Linking Rwanda to the technology giants of South Korea and China is as safe as bets come, they say.

“We are really focussing on the future,” one project engineer, Manzi Rwaka, told the BBC. “We are doing our best not to be left out of the world.”

In a way, Mr Rwaka, 27, embodies the new country Rwanda is trying to become. Born outside of Rwanda after his family fled following the first outbreak of deadly civil violence in 1959, his parents chose to return home after the 1994 genocide, when the Rwanda Partriotic Forces (RPF) under Paul Kagame’s command took power.

Fifteen years later, and with a university education in South Africa under his belt, Mr Rwaka works on the WiBro project and speaks in an almost evangelical tone about the future of his country.

“Coming from where we have been, we really want to focus on our position in the region. We know we are in a difficult situation but we are trying to get out of it. We want a solid economy and we will get there.”

“If we sit down and wait for others to do something, we might be waiting forever.”

Critics muted

As the size of Mr Nyirishema’s in-tray suggests, the WiBro plan is just one of many technology projects Rwanda’s government is trying to push through in a hurry.

But while the scale of the ambition is clear, concerns remain that the government may be aiming too high.
In stark contrast to a regional neighbour such as Kenya, where mobile phone penetration is almost universal, just 20 percent of Rwandans own mobile phones, state media reported this week.

In an effort to boost mobile phone use and give farmers easy access to market information, the government plans to hand out 35,000 mobile phones across the country as part of a joint venture with major telecoms operators.

According to accepted international indicators Rwanda remains a desperately poor country, with a per capita annual income of just US$315. Women each have an average of 5.5 children.

And some Western observers are critical of President Paul Kagame’s hard-headed style of government. Amnesty International’s annual report on global human rights issues regularly highlights the restricted nature of political debate in Rwanda and the lack of a free press.

But Mr Kagame, president since 2001, appears to remain genuinely popular and plans to stand for a second full seven-year term in elections in 2010. Two other candidates are likely to stand - neither is expected to come close to victory.

Despite this, at the moment Mr Kagame appears to have support for his efforts to transform his country. He first identified technology as the way forward for Rwanda back in 1997, as the country began its long recovery from genocide.

“Technology sits at the centre of everything we do,” Patrick Nyirishema explained.

“But the biggest challenge we face is skills. Every extra step we take comes with a need for new skills.”
With the arrival of East Africa’s fibre-optic cables, Paul Kagame’s bold strategy is about to get the connectivity it needs.

Whether the farmers and schoolchildren in electricity-starved Kamonyi can become the skilled workers Rwanda needs in the years to come is yet to be seen.

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