6 September 2011

Uganda: Take Us to the Moon


In just 10 years, Rwanda has made impressive strides in its ICT sector, but will it ever be enough to overtake Kenya as the regional leader?

On a sunny April morning in Kigali City, Pierre Birasa, a Rwandan man in his early 30s walked into an internet cafe to find out if the police had posted the results of his provisional driving tests on their website.

But, Birasa, who had never used a computer in his life, had to seek help from a stranger to access the internet. Although his situation might seem humorous to some, this scene is routinely replicated across the country as many Rwandans attempt to keep up with the frenetic pace at which their country's information technology is developing.

From any computer connected to the internet Rwandans can now pay their utility bills, file taxes, apply for jobs, open up a company or if they're still in school, check their national examination results. The government, moreover, can track investments coming into the country and senior servants, including President Paul Kagame, can file their wealth records to the Ombudsman.

"This is the industry we have created in just 10 years," says David Kanamugire, permanent secretary in the ministry of information communication technology in the president's office. "We have a new life that we didn't have a few years ago." Speaking from his office near the ICT-Park building, an incubator for ICT start-ups, Kanamugire's desk is cluttered with an iPad and two smartphones. He is adamant, however, that it is not necessary to own the latest gadgets to benefit from Rwanda's Information Communication Technology (ICT) revolution.

"It's a question of enabling the people to access these services," he says. "Say a patient in the far south of the country goes to see a doctor, and the doctor has to consult with another doctor in Kigali via video conferencing. Does the patient need the gadgets to do the communication? No. She or he needs the service."

Rwanda's technology frenzy started in 1998 when the government introduced Vision 2020, a policy roadmap to guide every aspect of development from education to agriculture to infrastructure in order to transform the country from an agricultural economy to a knowledge-based economy. The policy began with creating the National Information and Communication Infrastructure (NICI I), established to craft relevant ICT sub policies and institutions, including the "smart -gov," "e-government" and other applications for the sector.

A second phase was launched two years later, which spearheaded the installation of a $107 million speedy 2,500-kilometre fibre-optic cable to bring high-speed broadband to the entire country. According to Nkubito Bakuramutsa, the Coordinator of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program, all Rwanda's nine border posts will be connected to high-speed connectivity by the end of the year, which is expected to reduce broadband purchase costs by 90 percent.

A $5.5 million state-of-the-art National Data Centre, adds Bakuramutsa, is also expected to open before the end of 2011, and has been established to store and process data and provide back-up for government ministries, security organisations and private institutions. The level three data center will be the best in the Sub-Saharan Africa, says Bakuramutsa, and will have robust connectivity that can support network-intensive and bandwidth-thirsty applications throughout the country. Cloud computing--a feature for storing date--will also be available.

"Instead of buying and using a huge storage device, you can simply access the cloud and store your data," he says. Moreover, any company will be able to do accounting, pay taxes, clear bills, and use heavy applications without having any of these applications installed in their computers or devices.

The data centre, however, is just one of Rwanda's mega ICT projects; there is also the Karisimbi project, a 40-meter antenna perched on the highest mountain in the country, designed to enhance electronic communications and broadcasting capabilities in Rwanda and in neighboring countries. The project will also provide sky safety and surveillance capability through Communication Navigation Surveillance - Air Traffic Management (CNS-ATM), in Africa.

All these milestones have propelled Rwanda to an admirable ICT level despite substantial obstacles. ICT analysts say Rwanda's progress is commendable, but dispute whether the country can become East Africa's regional ICT hub.

For example, a recent report, published in July 2011 by the business confidence index for the African continent, ranks Rwanda in the sixth spot in Africa, three places behind Kenya, the regional leader. The report came out just as Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki was preparing to officiate the groundbreaking construction of technology city, a designated land almost the equivalent size of Kigali City, in Nairobi City.

The $10 billion Konza technology city, termed Africa's Silicon Savannah, a close copycat of America's Silicon Valley, has already sent a wave of anticipation internationally as global moguls in technology rush to express their interest to be part of this momentous African venture. The project is a major component of Kenya's Vision 2030, designed to transform Kenya into a middle-income society with a double digit GDP growth. The techno-city will have a Science and Technology Park, business processing and subcontracting of foreign jobs, world-class hotels, a stadium and other social amenities.

The capacity of Kenya's techno-city venture will support the country's already vigorous developments in ICT, both in government and private sector.

Generally speaking, says Wensi Nuwagaba, a Ugandan IT expert who has worked in Kenya, Uganda and the UK, Kenya has started embracing the use of technology in their daily lives. For instance, he says, that with so many applications out there, such as E-mpesa money transfer, an innovative mobile phone technology, Kenyans are undergoing a radical transformation.

Nuwagaba believes Kenya has a robust IT industry and cannot be compared to Rwanda's. "They have gone as far as outsourcing international markets," he says. For Nuwagaba, the Rwandan market is still small, with fewer IT professionals and with a huge population that lacks awareness. "If banks are scared of online transaction, how about the people?" he wonders.

According to Patrick Bigabo, a local communication consultant, "ICT in Rwanda is still stagnant." He says that the industry is still at a pilot stage, "because we do not have enough electricity, we do not have the human resource, and we do not yet have the technology to have this as a full entity capable of taking its place as a measurable unit in the economy."

Maurice Toroitich, managing director of KCB Rwanda, a subsidiary of Kenya Commercial Bank, agrees: "Rwanda does not have adequate infrastructure to be able to support first-class telecommunications systems. That limits how much bandwidth I could buy to be able to drive through the data and tech-based applications that I need for the bank."

In addition to shortcomings in its infrastructure, Rwanda is also home to many citizens who are unable to take full advantage of the resources at their fingertips. Although over 50 per cent of the population is literate, only about 10 per cent speak French or English, and most computer applications and Internet content are not offered in the most widely spoken language, Kinyarwanda.

Jimmy Rutabingwa, a Rwandan who owns an E-phonebook software that stores contacts over the web, has witnessed first hand the difficulties Rwandans face in understanding ICT applications. "The market is still a challenge," he says. "People don't understand the product. Even finding people who can market the product because of the lack of human resource is still a challenge."

Solutions, however, are being proposed across the board, from local businesses that translate applications into Kinyarwanda to a $10 million World Bank funded project that includes sending an "IT bus" to penetrate deep into villages to teach people the basic information technology skills such as how to start a computer and how type their names in a word document. Over 1,500 people in rural areas have since been trained in basic computer skills, such as Microsoft Office.

For Donatien Nsengiyunva, an entrepreneur who just launched a language computing company, having ICT applications in Kinyarwanda is the key: "When Rwandans become connected to fast internet, with content already in Kinyarwanda, there will be more people tapping the benefits of the internet," he says. "We are creating an environment where content can be easily [integrated] into our language."

His company has already translated open source applications such as Google, Linux, Firefox or Microsoft Soft, into Kinyarwanda for Kinyarwanda speakers.

According to Bakuramutsa, greater attention to training young students in ICT through programs such as the OLPC is also an important step forward. The country needs to impress on them, he says, "that if they want to become engineers or doctors, they must be fluent in ICT."

"If you compare Rwanda to Kenya, you find that Kenya is more of a demand driven development and less of an organized and systematic development," says Bakuramutsa. "While you will not see Rwanda performing as much as Kenya, especially in the private sector, we believe that Rwanda is going to catch up."

Rwandans further argue that it has software developers starting to bring in solutions to their country as well. SMS Media, a mobile phone solution helps Rwandans purchase water and electricity, pay bills, and sends bulk emails and SMSs, while TracNet is remarkably helping medical workers provide healthcare to HIV/Aids patients.

There are also web developers, network specialists, computer scientists and engineers springing up here and there, and most of them work in Telecommunication companies like MTN and Tigo. But there are still few Rwandan IT specialists in the private sector who can create an environment to rival Kenya's IT driven economy.

Patrick Nyirishema, deputy director in charge of ICT at Rwanda Development Board, told Hope Magazine, a local monthly, that Rwanda is aware of this dilemma. What the government is trying to do instead, is to create "the right environment" and the "right policies" to create, "certain software applications."

President Kagame has personally reiterated the importance of such ICT advancements and has made applications like Twitter and Facebook an essential means of communication in government.

"We have the backbone of reaching the rural areas, as far as Gisenyi, bordering DRC," says Bakuramutsa. "The next step will be setting up an Internet Service Provider to give low cost and good quality connectivity, and then we will be able to have hotels with online booking services, and all retail stores with automated payment systems."

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