Interview: Africa ICT conference to unlock potential–Minister Nsengimana

Rwanda will next month host ‘Transform Africa Summit’ that will discuss, among other issues, how Africa can leverage broadband to transform communities, governments and the private sector. In an exclusive interview with The New Times’ Frank Kanyesigye, the Minister for Youth and ICT, Jean Philbert Nsengimana said that on agenda will be Rwanda’s broadband penetration challenges and  prospects. Below are the excerpts.
Minister forYouth and ICT, Jean Philbert Nsengimana
Minister forYouth and ICT, Jean Philbert Nsengimana

Rwanda will next month host ‘Transform Africa Summit’ that will discuss, among other issues, how Africa can leverage broadband to transform communities, governments and the private sector. In an exclusive interview with The New Times’ Frank Kanyesigye, the Minister for Youth and ICT, Jean Philbert Nsengimana said that on agenda will be Rwanda’s broadband penetration challenges and  prospects. Below are the excerpts.

TNT: Can you briefly tell us about Transform Africa Summit?

It’s an international high-level conference that will be held in Rwanda from October 28 to 31 and co-hosted by President Paul Kagame and Dr. Hamadoun Toure, the Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

International institutions like Visa International, World Bank, Carnegie Mellon University, Africa Development Bank, Africa Digital Media Academy and Korea Telecom are some of the key partners in organising the summit.

The objective of the event is to set new agenda for the use of new ICTs for the development of Africa.

Six years ago Rwanda took the lead and mobilised the whole continent and the world around through ‘Connect Africa Summit’ and that agenda has spread across the globe where we have now Connect Asia, Connect Americas among others.

Given what has been accomplished, we realised that this was the right time to review the approaches and adjust to the current realities and needs. We think you connect by purpose and that purpose is to transform and touch many people’s lives.

In fact we have entered into an agreement with Korea Telecom which is in line with the Summit’s agenda. We signed an agreement to enable people access broadband through connectivity. Transformation comes from what that connectivity will be used for.

TNT: Any particular reason Rwanda was chosen to host this summit?

Rwanda was not chosen to host the meeting, we invented the concept, and it’s basically made in Rwanda. It is the first one. We designed the concept “Transform Africa” and shared it with our colleagues and friends. The idea was liked, so we decided to make it happen.

TNT: What will be the major focus of the event?

The summit will bring together all stakeholders to answer two key questions, where are we today with regard to resolutions set during Connect Africa?  How can Africa leverage broadband to transform communities, governments and the private sector?

It will be held under the theme, “The Future Delivered Today”.

After the conference, we want to issue a ‘Smart Africa’ manifesto, a statement that will underlay a smart future use of ICTs in Africa; it will generate smart ideas towards the transformation of the continent’s connectivity.

The summit will feature five key interactive sessions that include leaders’ forum, youth innovation extravaganza, exhibition, Smart Africa conference and awards.

There will be a heads of state meeting, a ministerial meeting, development partners roundtable and a technology exhibition.

We are bringing top 25 start-up ICT companies from all over Africa and will put them into a training programme where they will enter into a competition and the outstanding ones will walk away with awards.

It will be an exciting programme to enable young people to be part of the transformation of Africa. We want also to set an agenda for ‘Smart Africa,’ for example, here in Rwanda, we will share our vision of ‘Smart Rwanda days’ to apply the power of ICT in the development agenda to transform the social and economic development of citizens across the continent. We want to show them how ICT can impact education, agriculture, governance and health, among others.

We have already thought of the inputs and we want to share with the rest of the continent so that we can move forward with ‘Smart Africa’ agenda. We cannot move alone we want to move with the rest of the continent.

TNT: Is this the time for Rwanda or Africa to transform people’s lives using the power of broadband?

It is the right time because there has never been an opportunity like there is today, to embark on a broadband journey. There are sceptics who thought that Africa was a cursed continent.

During the advent of mobile technology, people were saying that in Africa there was no market, but Africa has proved to be the fastest growing market up to now. Why do we believe this is the right time? In Rwanda, for example, we are shifting from an agrarian, peasant economy to a knowledge based economy.

It’s useless to try and compete in agrarian or industrial economy, those are steps Africa missed. In order for us to catch-up with the rest of the world, we have to leapfrog traditional fixed broadband by adopting current-generation mobile technology that will be accessed by every Rwandan citizen.

In old economies, people competed on factors of production; capital, land and labour, today the power of ICT is driving every economy to a desired level of production. We need to invest heavily in technology and skills of our people.

TNT: Are there any specific technology challenges that the summit needs to address?

Absolutely, we are going to address the ICT related challenges that hamper Africa socio-economic transformation. We are not aiming at addressing all the challenges, but we shall focus on the role a smarter use of ICT can do.

We need to base our development on skills and technology and once we consider those we shall be able to overcome other remaining challenges. That is how we have positioned ‘Smart Rwanda’ initiative as a vehicle to drive the second Economic Development Poverty Reduction Strategy (EDPRS2)cutting across all the sectors and showing how ICT makes things quicker, more reliable and cost effective.

TNT: What could be the challenges hindering the growth of ICT in Rwanda and Africa in general?

I would say that there is an issue of penetration; for instance we haven’t connected the whole country in terms of accessing quality broadband to ICTs for everyone.

We have also a challenge of affordability, there is something known as poverty premium, for instance, in ICTs, where Africans pay more than Europeans, what we pay for one megabyte per second of connectivity is sometimes ten times what the Western economies pay and this is something we are working round the clock to address.

There is also the skills gap when it comes to technology because we haven’t reached at same level with western nations.  Africa and Rwanda,  in particular, need to invest heavily in ICT skills development to have skilled people who will drive the information society forward.

Investment in technology in Africa is still low which derails the growth of ICT, but I believe good business environment, coupled with good business plans, will always stimulate investment in the industry.  We need to work very hard to mobilise investments and build the kind of infrastructure we need to have to develop the skills and deliver the broadband promise to our people.

TNT: Where does Rwanda stand in terms of fixed and mobile broadband penetration?

Broadband penetration generally in our country is still low as we all know; we are leading in the region but it has not reached where we want.

The mobile broadband penetration still stands at about 8 per cent and that is basically 3G and 3.5G. The fixed broadband is accessed through connecting to the fibre cable. The fixed broadband we have is the fibre and a bit of wimax and other little wireless internet technology. Fixed broadband accounts for less than one per cent because it hasn’t been extended to residential and corporate homes.

It’s still very much confined within the government and that is what we are solving with the last mile project that we started. There is a huge room for growth but the good news is that we have huge projects that have firmly started to address those gaps.

TNT: Rwanda hosted ‘Connect Africa Summit’ in 2007, has the summit’s recommendations been implemented in the country?

They have been implemented, in fact the African Development Bank initiated a detailed study to see the difference, and if you remember very well in 2006 before the summit, mobile phone penetration in Rwanda was at about six per cent and today its more than 60 per cent. 

In 2006 Rwanda relied on satellite to connect to internet, today the country is one of the most connected countries in Africa in terms of fibre optic cable networks. At that time there was no Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), actually at the summit it was decided that five major ICT centres of excellence be established across the continent and Rwanda made it through the establishment of CMU-Rwanda.

We did our homework and we have compared notes with the other countries across the continent to see how far we have moved together to achieve ‘Connect Africa’ goals.

TNT: What is this thing of ‘Smart Kigali’ all about?

Actually we have broader ‘Smart Rwanda’ initiative; Kigali is going to be the first smart city. In a smart city, people should be connected to free broadband technology to do things faster using the power of ICT and that really defines how smart communities are.

We are starting with Kigali by installing free internet hotspots. People may wonder how we will sustain something free; I can assure them that there is a business model behind it.

The most important thing is to create a market or grow an existing market giving people ability to test quality broadband and go buy it. We will be having free wireless internet hot spots around popular areas, commercial buildings, taxis and vans, among others. We want hotels to upgrade their internet services and serve people quality internet which is more reliable and fast, they should consider broadband as part of their hospitality services they offer to clients.

For us, in Rwanda, we consider broadband as utility like water and electricity. 

TNT: Anything you may want to add?

It’s an opportunity for Rwanda and Africa to host such an important meeting.  It’s a vital platform that will address challenges that hinder the growth of ICT in Africa.

The summit will also be an opportunity for visitors to discover and understand Rwanda more. I urge Rwandans to provide the best hospitality possible to our guests and continue to help the country move in the right direction in terms of development.