One of the most fascinating stories I have had the pleasure of reading was written by Rwandan writer Rama Isibo for his blog sometime in 2007.
Having saved money to buy his first personal computer, Isibo was bemused by the amount of information that the computer shop salesman gave him.
I related to the story because my own attempts to secure a first computer were very testing.
Isibo’s challenges were much different from mine in purchasing his first computer, as at that time I believed he was living in the UK and so he did not have to clench his fist and gnash his teeth while saving up the money for a computer.
Nonetheless, his experience with the computer shops was quite hillarioius. In the end, Isibo signed off his article promising to keep the memories of his exercise to tell to his children.
As a budding journalist myself at the time, it was a basic necessity to have a personal computer. It remains to date as one of the most challenging battles of my life so far.
I had to save my salary for two months and default on practically every other essential daily expenditure. When I believed I had the right amount I took a day long bus ride to a neighbouring country where computers were selling at cheaper price.
At the end of the ordeal my roommate at the time evicted me from the house for failing contribute my share of the monthly rent.
At the time I was saving for my computer, government along with South Africa and other members of the EAC were in negotiations with SEACOM , a fibre optic cable firm to form a marine based cable connecting Cape Town to Cairo through Dar Salaam, Mombassa via Kigali, Kampala, Ethiopia and then to Cairo. The cable would then link Africa to India through the Indian Ocean and Europe.
The attitudes to computers is just one of various challenges that government and other policy makers will have to address starting in October, when Rwanda is slated to sign on to the sea cable submarine fibre optic network that is owned by SEACOM a South African private consortium, that specializes in selling cheap bandwidth to Internet subscribers.
The operation of SEACOM was launched on Wednesday in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa and according to economists and ICT experts, will go a very long way in removing the international infrastructure bottleneck and supporting East and South African economic growth.
Rwanda was not among the first countries to join the cable system because first the national fibre network roll out was still being constructed across the country and also the obvious factor for not being close to the ocean.
Interesting, it is only Rwanda in the region that has embarked on a nationwide fibre optic cable rollout, and is also so far, the only country with a national policy framework for ICT in the region. Kigali city and its suburbs have already been connected by 77km of fibre optic cables, over 70 percent of the country according to the EDPRS framework is covered today.
Nevertheless, owning a computer remains a daunting challenge to a very large majority in the country.
In fact it is a fair assumption to say that computers are only limited to a select few in the country. And this is not just because the gadgets are expensive or Rwandans are too unsophisticated to handle computers. Many of my colleagues have very expensive mobile phones that could buy two new sets of computers.
Yet interestingly the owners of these phones have no ideal use for the features in these phones and most times our telephone service providers do not have the software to use these mobile phones. This is testimony that the purchasing knowledge of most consumers is tuned to bizarre attitudes that only a seasoned anthropologist would attempt to figure out.
If you like, the success of most development programmes in the country hinge on this fibre optic cable. Starting with the One Laptop Per Child Programme, which on top of increasing the quality of education that school going children will be able to access, will foster the delivery of health initiatives across the country as well. Already the Centre for Research and Treatment of HIV/Aids and other infectious diseases-TRAC-was using mobile telephones to connect patients to care professionals but the cost of airtime was an unnecessary hump in the process. High speed internet connection to health centres will ease this burden. A child whose computer is connected to the internet will help other family members that could be sick in accessing ARVs.
The members are helped when they are easily connected to the specialists that TRAC has stationed in most health centre across the country to monitor the health of patients and the child would have learnt invaluable lessons in the process.
In the long run the quality of life on the continent will improve and we shall leave the group of people that have a very short life expectancy.
The benefits of fibre networks cannot be overemphasized, online education will not only expand but it will also be a reality to many more people as will government’s promise to make all its operations digital.
The network will also reduce the slice of the national budget that was being diverted to the wallets and egos of public officials, that have been handling such policies and fees that go with them.
The bigger picture is that the integration of Africa will be enhanced as SEACOM will attempt to complete Vasco Da Gama’s dream of a connected triangle bringing together Europe, Africa and India, the cooperation of African countries will increase with faster internet and we might be the generation that casts away the image of a dark continent.
For the new generation of wannabe Da Gamas to Africa, the cable will make it easier for them to make travel arrangements faster online and this way seeing more of the continent.
As Seacom’s undersea cable project is the first of its kind to connect to East Africa to the rest of the world through links to India, the United Kingdom and France.
This will open up unprecedented opportunities, at a fraction of the current cost, as government, business leaders and citizens can now use the network as the platform to compete globally, drive economic growth and enhance the quality of life across the continent.
Africa has been slow to catch up with bandwidth as most connections on the continent were by satellite which is quite expensive and unaffordable to many.
Yet for the fibre optic cable to make a real change to the lives of Rwandans other challenges on the continent will need to be dealt with faster. For example, expanding the electricity grid to all parts of the country will have to shift from EDPRS documents to all major trading centres across the nation. Most important is the general political stability of Africa will primarily be a responsibility of Africans as the recent pirate insurgency on the Somalian coastline demonstrates.
The pirates apparently hindered the completion of the cable connection on time as they were operating in waters where the cable passes in February and March.
Where Africa left the international community to deal with the pirates, now it will be up to to all of Africa to ensure that Somalia stabilizes. This will not be a difficult task as it appears on paper.
The stability of the East African coastline has in the past been achieved after serious insurgencies. It is said the Arabs and Da Gama first operated as a pirates on the coast before they each took turns at settling at Fort Jesus.