One facet of ICT that has garnered little attention in our region is electronics. Unlike Telecom and software development, electronics is an untapped area in Rwanda and to a large extent the rest of Africa.
An Electronics industry can open several doors for a country like Rwanda. Some sectors e.g. manufacturing and military that make use of custom electronics for specialized tasks and at the moment, such equipment is imported at very high costs.
Investing in local electronics development would allow Rwanda to not only produce such hardware solutions but also export similar applications to the region.
A focus on this area can also lead to local development of low cost consumer electronics like radios, mobile phones and home security systems. Although admittedly, a lack of economy of scale early on may affect Rwanda’s ability to offer competitive prices.
In the US, DARPA, a military technology research initiative commissioned during the Cold war in response to Sputnik, a similar Soviet program, has been credited for either directly developing or influencing the creation of technologies like the Internet, CDMA (underlying technology used in 3G networks) and GPS.
Through a similar program, the Rwandan military (in conjunction with local tertiary institutions) can kick-start the electronic development industry by creating demand for custom products for use by the armed forces.
The experience from such research projects, if not the products themselves, will in many cases be transferable to the industrial and consumer spaces as was the case with DARPA.
The electronics field is fairly advanced and would need a large local skilled labour force to support a sustainable future. A heavy educational focus will be needed to achieve this.
Many may think that this academic field is expensive, however, the equipment necessary to effectively offer such a program in university, although costlier than software development for example, is relatively inexpensive and definitely within the fiscal reach of our major tertiary institutions.
In addition, students can be trained abroad in this specific field as we develop educational capacity locally.
With a steady stream of graduates trained in this field, we will have some capacity to launch and sustain an electronics industry that can provide custom electronics across the continent. Of course this will be a long process, however, temporarily utilizing consultants and outsourcing strategies can expedite the growth of this industry.
Multinational electronics firms can also be lured to Rwanda by cultivating skilled labour and lower wage costs. The resultant presence of such firms can then accelerate the industry further and provide significant employment opportunities as well as tax revenue.
Of all these factors, the most important benefit of an electronics industry is that it provides an additional tool for innovation in ICT. It opens up many more entrepreneurial opportunities and with the available expertise in hardware (electronics) and software development, there will be few limitations for tech innovators in Rwanda.
In all, heavy investment in electronics at university level could allow Rwanda to set itself apart from other African/developing countries as the resulting industry will be unprecedented in our continent.
For us to win the crown of Africa’s IT hub, we must be willing to take steps that others are not-investing in electronics development I think is a good start.