It goes without saying that the challenge we have put into our hands to become the ‘ICT Hub of Africa’ is one that will draw much sweat but is nonetheless attainable and goodness only knows the returns.
Of late I have been turning that catch phrase around in my mind and the nagging question remains, what exactly being the ICT hub of Africa entails? It is exciting to know that we now have thousands of miles of fiber cable snaking beneath our feet; when these begin to provide the fastest broadband service (with download speeds of up to 50 mbps) on the continent we shall truly deserve a pat on the back but is that enough? I like to think not.
Capitalising on our political stability, prime central location on the continent and the flourishing economic climate, I have grandiose dreams about what we can achieve in line with this vision; dreams of a country at the heart of Africa akin to the Silicon Valley.
There is one sure way to accomplish this-by creating a habitat for innovation and entrepreneurship; a fibre of innovation does not mean making first year university students read ten books on innovation (as is the case); Scholars have argued that Silicon Valley (California, USA) is distinguished globally by an environment that is tuned to turn ideas into products and not necessarily its scientific breakthroughs.
This means a lot in the Rwandan context because it demonstrates that all we need are supportive government regulations for new company formations and a talented (and mobile) workforce; I will put a check mark next to both.
However, that is not all, this environment would include research universities that interact with industry and here we fall short; the tertiary education system in Rwanda is yet to play an active and pro-active role in industry and this is very important if a lesson can be learned from Stanford University and Berkeley that are at the heart of the growth of what we now know as Silicon valley.
It would be near-sighted to think that scientists will make Rwanda the heart of technological breakthroughs in Africa; they will play a central role but we cannot write off the need for experienced support services in areas like finance, law, headhunting, marketing, all specialising in facilitating the formation of new firms and more importantly, helping them grow.
One more item on my checklist is a spirit of adventure and risk-taking; we cannot afford to play safe. In line with this, it is true that in Africa we like to learn from our neighbors and create similar business concepts, this is my way of saying creativity and originality are what brought HP, Facebook and Google to where they are today. Competition is healthy but it is hard to ignore a familiar trend in our motherland.
It is safe to highlight the fact that the size of Rwanda will be of advantage to a habitat of technological progress and breakthroughs; tight knit networks of specialists can form communities of practice whence new ideas, new products and new firms emerge.
Naturally, with this dream come questions; for example, how will we define a new generation of Rwandan tech entrepreneurs? We cannot settle for duplicating work that has already been done and yet, we have to put our socio-economic situation (and that of our neighbors) into perspective; addressing a digital divide and defining a regional role are paramount in order to edify our place as the ICT giant of the continent.
Other than high-speed Internet, how will we effectively compete against all the products flooding our markets from the US and China? Where can we as a blossoming economy situate ourselves in the global tech industry (chip manufacturing? Software development?)
I will leave you to mull over these questions and construct your answers; one thing holds true however, in order to emulate Silicon Valley and create a tech backbone for Rwanda’s new economy, we will need to foster an effective habitat for innovation and entrepreneurship.
The author is a postgraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and an Electrical Engineer with interest in emerging technologies and their impact on business and society.