Six young software developers start the morning with a team meeting about implementing cloud computing solutions for an international client. This isn’t Silicon Valley, Seoul or Bangalore. It’s Kigali, Rwanda.
East Africa is in the process of reinventing itself. The government of Rwanda has invested heavily in IT infrastructure to bring high speed internet connections to even the most remote parts of this small, resource-poor country. Kenya, similarly, has ambitious plans to become a highly wired nation and attract a share of the growing market in international business outsourcing.
Only a year ago, east Africa was the last major region on Earth without fibre-optic broadband internet connections. People were forced to rely on painfully slow and prohibitively expensive satellite connections. However, the recent arrival of three submarine fibre-optic cables into the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa has now fundamentally altered the connectivity of the region.
Bitange Ndemo, Kenya’s permanent secretary for information and communications, compares the landing of these cables to a virus that has infected the region. “In the next five years there will be a full blown status of the virus,” he says.
“It has to kill something. It will kill the current inefficient systems, it will kill the corruption we have, and it will create completely new systems. In my view, the IT industry is the leading system that will be created.”
Ignace Gatare, Rwanda’s minister of information communication technology (ICT), similarly remarked: “People were saying: ‘Rwanda you are dreaming. How can you invest [millions of] dollars when you are still an agricultural nation?’ I would respond that we cannot forget agriculture, but we cannot afford to be disconnected from the digital global economy.”
I spent the last five weeks in both countries, interviewing software developers, web designers, call centre managers and government officials. Among all those groups, similar opinions were echoed by almost everyone I spoke to. The sense of anticipation and expectation is palpable.
A commonly expressed sentiment is that the cables have fundamentally altered the relative distance between east Africa and the rest of the world. For instance, Anthony Nguru, a Nairobi-based software developer, said: “Without fast internet, you are landlocked. You can only do small projects around here.”
With the arrival of the cables, there is a general sense among east African businesses that they can work with clients anywhere in the world, unconstrained by traditional barriers.
IT businesses in Kenya and Rwanda are eager to take advantage of this newfound connectivity and reach out to international customers. However, the fragility of the technological fix on which these companies are relying is often painfully apparent. Both countries have suffered multiple internet outages in the last few months due to vandalism, technical faults and an explosion in Uganda that severed the main internet connection into Kigali.
Older infrastructure problems will also undoubtedly continue to plague the development of the industry. At the opening session of the recent east Africa ICT summit, a keynote speaker was discussing how faster internet speeds would transform the region when one of Nairobi’s frequent power cuts interrupted his talk. The irony of the situation was not lost on the audience.
Nobody knows whether the East African gamble on IT and outsourcing will pay off. Vast resources have been invested, and there are high hopes among many in the public and private sectors that changes in connectivity offer opportunities for economic growth.
But important questions remain. Will altered connectivity really allow firms in east Africa to become hubs in the global economy? Or will improved connections simply allow foreign firms to better exploit the demand in east Africa for IT services? Perhaps most importantly, who stands to benefit? And who will be left out of these transformations?
The answers to these questions are unclear. But it is likely that the sense of expectation and change in Kenya and Rwanda will be enough to bring about significant economic transformations, whatever they may be.
Mark Graham is a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, which is part of the University of Oxford. Read more on his Zero Geography blog