Rwanda bids to become East Africa's WiFi hotspot

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The World

KIGALI, Rwanda — If your last exposure to this East African country was the movie "Hotel Rwanda," you have some catching up to do.

In the 15 years since the genocide of 1994 brought Rwanda international notoriety, the country has been on a development tear. It is orderly and calm; this year, the World Bank ranked it as the top pro-business reformer in the world.

Now, Rwanda is attempting to position itself on the cutting edge of tech in East Africa. There are plans — none completed so far — to provide a network of fiber optic cables, citywide WiFi in the capital, and one laptop for every child in the country by 2020.

As President Paul Kagame puts it in a statement on the Rwanda Development Board’s website, “In Africa, we have missed both the agricultural and industrial revolutions and in Rwanda we are determined to take full advantage of the digital revolution.”

Some foreigners in the capital scoff at the idea — Rwanda is a very poor country, and it’s still easier to get online in some neighboring countries.

But many other observers, both locally and internationally, think Rwanda may be on to something.

On a recent evening in Kigali’s Blues Cafe, across a parking lot from the posh Union Trading Center mall, and in view of the Hotel des Milles Collines — the real-life Hotel Rwanda — Maurice Masozera talked about the future of tech in the country. Lanky and with a smile fitted in a retainer, the 27-year-old part-time programmer is a member of the Kigali Coders, a group of local techies who do freelance computer support in the city.

“When you look at people here, especially the youth, they are visionary — working hard,” Masozera said as he sipped a mug of warm milk. A soccer match played on a flatscreen TV on the wall to his left. “If we keep up the trend and momentum, we can achieve some pretty good things.”

Masozera’s own evolution into a tech enthusiast encapsulates both the possibilities and challenges to Rwanda achieving its vision.

Like many Rwandans, he is a member of the diaspora who returned. Masozera grew up in Burundi and speaks French, English, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi and Kiswahili. And, like his country, Masozera is a relative newcomer to the internet but a voracious learner. He’s competent in JavaScript, Microsoft Visual Basic and HTML, but he didn’t get online until the year 2000. The learning curve was extremely steep, and he quickly graduated from being a consumer to a creator of content.

“I wanted to move from watching Kobe Bryant online” — Masozera’s favorite basketball player — “to creating content,” he said. He got a degree from the National University of Rwanda, but most of his programming acumen was self-taught.

On the other hand, Masozera has been unable to give up his day job in a non-governmental organization to start a programming operation full time, because he feels uncertain about his financial security. A tech revolution requires more than tech; it also needs available credit, investors, and space to take risks — a whole architecture of institutions that Rwanda is still trying to build. For a country in which there are no ATMs that accept international cards, Rwanda probably has a long way to go before it becomes East Africa's Silicon Valley.

“The problem is still financial security,” Masozera said. “But maybe the [tech] trend will create the opportunities for business.”

There are also the issues of low education levels, illiteracy and poverty, notwithstanding Rwanda’s remarkable recovery from war. Just 65 percent of the population is literate, and gross domestic product per capita is only $866, according to the United Nations. People like Masozera are impressive advocates for tech in Rwanda, but they hardly represent the average person.

And Rwanda still lags far behind richer and more urban Kenya and Uganda in internet penetration — it’s 2.8 percent in Rwanda, and more than 8.6 and 7.7 percent, respectively, in Kenya and Uganda, according to International Telecommunication Union figures. Both those countries also have larger pools of experienced entrepreneurs and more of an organic geek scene, people working in tech say, without the support of government.

Still, Rwanda is definitely getting noticed in tech circles.

“Rwanda is surprising,” said Jon Gosier, an American who heads Appfrica, an “incubator” for East African software developers in Kampala. “You go there and you’re like, 'Wow, this could be anywhere in the U.S.'” When it comes to tech, he added, “I think Kagame is doing brilliant things for the country.”

Masozera is optimistic, too.

“The work is very much recognized by the government,” he said.

His message to those who still think Rwanda is all about strife and instability?

“Just come and see,” he said with a smile.

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