Making a case for homegrown ICT solutions

Someone once asked me: “why are we trying to shove phones and ICT into Rwandans’ hands when what most of us really need, are the basic essentials like reliable water and education?”  It wasn’t the first time I was fired such a question but in this case I was mostly thrown aback by the use of the word ‘shove’. This verb hardly represents the efforts being made to bridge the digital divide in this country but it is easy to understand why someone would raise such a concern.
Alline Akintore
Alline Akintore

Someone once asked me: “why are we trying to shove phones and ICT into Rwandans’ hands when what most of us really need, are the basic essentials like reliable water and education?” 

It wasn’t the first time I was fired such a question but in this case I was mostly thrown aback by the use of the word ‘shove’. This verb hardly represents the efforts being made to bridge the digital divide in this country but it is easy to understand why someone would raise such a concern.

 

An answer to anyone with similar doubts as the aforementioned individual: ICT is not the remedy for all the issues our country faces, in fact ICTs can only act as enablers for the new solutions required to meet economic development in this country. 

 

When applied with a broad understanding and a multi-disciplinary approach, basic essentials are effectively met. Therefore you are right, shoved phones are not the answer (even though ICT is broader than a couple of handsets). 

 

If you are willing to listen, I am inclined to convince you why there is no better time for the ICT ‘shove’. 

The cost of wireless communication has decreased immensely: a successful wireless infrastructure in rural areas leads to increased income levels and therefore investments in other ‘basic’ infrastructure like water and power distribution are made feasible, inevitably. 

In addition, the diffusion of technology on the continent is slowly creating channels for access to capital, and therefore an environment for entrepreneurship, thus crafting jobs in a market that desperately needs them.

However, there is a drop of veracity in the fact that we have mostly been ‘shoving’ foreign-developed technologies into Rwandan hands.

Technology will always have a big role to play in a developing country like ours, but it is possible that the use and uptake of these off-the-shelf technologies hasn’t achieved full potential because it is not the perfect fit for certain individuals. 

We can take a step back and see where to fully utilize ICTs, and therein what opportunities exist for Rwandans to take a lead. 

ICTs improve livelihoods from so many facets. In healthcare, ICTs can facilitate the fight against child mortality by allowing exchange of timely reports on child killer diseases that improves care and access to appropriate medication and thereby reduces mortality. 

This doesn’t apply solely to child mortality as different applications such as telemedicine and computer-assisted diagnoses can be used to address the shortage of health workers. 

With the induction of 4G LTE all over Rwanda, the issue of addressing low-cost, low-power wireless technology needs has been eliminated. 

Beyond the existing SMS-based applications, there’s an opportunity for Rwandans to develop robust applications and shared services for hospitals and health centers nationwide. 

In education, electronic course material aids instruction at the student’s pace even allowing customization to Kinyarwanda and other local languages. Electronic courseware facilitates schools that face a shortage of highly-qualified teachers and allows senior students to coach their juniors. 

Electronic education creates a need for a local content warehouse where instructors and students can post and retrieve publications, educative games, to mention a few. 

Agriculture and disaster management have a lot to gain in the use of ICTs as weather reports, historical data collection and information dissemination channels can be made accessible to all. 

The list is quite long as ICT can enable transformation of a number of services in say, government service delivery, improving economic efficiency, to mention but a few: all these are opportunities lying in wait.

There are a number of issues that have to be tackled in parallel that I will not delve into. The fact is that for long-term impact of technology, there is a heavy dependence on economic sustainability. This means that the technology project or application meets public need or it sustains itself financially. 

There are so many failed ICT projects because the needs of the user were not understood or taken into account (supply-driven instead of driven by demand), or because they were built to meet short-term needs that were not critically assessed beforehand.

I hope that by writing this article, I have managed to help anyone with doubts understand that today connectivity is in fact a basic tool that will aid meet our basic needs. 

That shoved phone is more than a texting device: we need to see it as a tool for solutions to achieve economic development; more importantly, we have to take the lead on this front by proactive research and local development.

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