7 January 2013

Rwanda: Social Media - What Can Be Learned From Village Urugwiro

In the drive to turn Rwanda into a regional ICT hub, the government wants the public sector to spearhead the use of technology - from to internet to social media such as Twitter and Facebook. As a result, almost all public institutions have a presence online, from the President's Office over ministries down to all the 30 districts of Rwanda.

But if you visit the districts' websites, you'll notice that some of them aren't regularly updated. And even some ministries are lagging behind in this respect.

It gets worse when it comes to the use of social media. None of the districts is on Twitter or Facebook, leave alone YouTube and Flickr. What some do, however, is linking to the Twitter page of the ministry of local governance - which isn't the best way to show what's happening in specific districts - and directing the would-be Facebook link to a blank page.

"I would wish to visit the website of my district to learn what's happening there but I don't find enough information online," says Jeanne Murebwayire, a Kigali resident who comes from Rusizi. "For instance, there was a low magnitude earthquake there recently; I wanted them to post detailed news and photos for us to know how people were coping."

Jean-Philbert Nsengimana, the Minister of Youth and ICT, agrees that change is required. During a recent meeting to review the achievements of the technology sector last year, he called on the executive secretaries of all sectors to embrace social media because they are efficient tools to reach out to people and interact with them.

"They have BlackBerries, which come with Twitter and Facebook pre-installed, but they don't use them," he said. "I really don't know what's keeping them from clicking on those apps. There are many things that people need to know from their sectors, and social media serve that purpose like nothing else."

The same goes for MPs who, after all, are elected by the people and therefore should be accountable to them. But apart from the occasional visit to their constituency, many MPs are seen by the people as unreachable. That situation could be greatly improved through the use of social media.

In fact, they should follow the example of the trailblazer when it comes to social media: Village Urugwiro. It doesn't only reach people through Twitter and Facebook, but also via Flickr and YouTube.

"We attach a lot of significance in sharing the President's activities and vision as much as possible through the different platforms to make him accessible and close to the public," says the communications department in the Office of the President. "This is in line with the government's principle and conviction that access to information paves the way for transparency and good governance, which are tenets of democracy."

"This also complements traditional media because we want to reach all levels of Rwandan society - social media is used a lot by young people and we get a lot of feedback from them on the stories that we put out. It is also a way for us to rapidly connect Rwanda with the world in a cost-effective manner. We want to encourage all Rwandans to express themselves, taking advantage of the investments the government has made in IT infrastructure."

Village Urugwiro's principle is to update all platforms immediately after the event or as soon as possible. It's a strategy that many highly appreciate. "It fascinates me the way our President's Office uses Twitter. It provides, in my opinion, a valuable example on how one of the most important offices in a country can effectively use social media to connect with citizens," says David Gilbert Rwabigwi, social media activist and president of the Youth Literacy Organization.

"The different live tweets from events and the @reply tweets speak for themselves," he points out. "Driven by the passion in President Paul Kagame of communicating directly to people by embracing the use of social media, and Twitter in particular, Village Urugwiro's model has come to inspire even more Rwandans to take advantage of this platform."

According to Rwabigwi, this has changed the way Rwandan citizens reach out to their leaders. It's a unique possibility of which many have benefited.

Noticing how active Village Urugwiro is on social media, and how it's easy to virtually enter the Office of the President using different social media platforms, some people have used the opportunity to directly address the President. Such as Abdul Byukusenge, who on the eve of the 9th National Dialogue asked Kagame via Twitter to grant him an invitation to the event - and he received it in few hours.

The Office of the President also posts pictures on Flickr, uploads videos to their YouTube channel, and streams audio from different events.

It's a model all government institutions should emulate in 2013.

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