Rwanda: Govt to Scale Up Interventions to Accelerate Technology, Innovation

Participants at the Africa Drone Forum inspect one of the drones by Zipline at an exhibition (file photo).

The Government has set out a series of actions and plans that it will implement to accelerate technology and innovation in the country amidst the novel coronavirus pandemic, or COVID-19.

There is no doubt that the need for digitalisation has even increased in the COVID-19 period; from remote working due to the lockdown, and use of drones to deliver medical supplies to data collection to inform decisions, and e-commerce, to mention but a few.

As firms threatened by the pandemic are increasingly going digital to minimize disruption, the government admits that there is a need to establish and maintain a level of digital competitiveness.

In an economic recovery plan approved by the cabinet recently, the government said it will increase spending on digital infrastructure, adopt data-driven approaches in response to economic recovery interventions, and leverage technology solutions to inform Covid19 containment strategies.

Government has said it will also prioritise scaling up high-tech jobs and skills, e-commerce platforms and digital payment systems, and encourage investment in reinventing the workplace.

This, they believe, will increase productivity and value creation that are much needed to address the challenges brought on by the pandemic and fast-track economic recovery.

Currently, the ICT spending represents 1 per cent of the total gross domestic product.

Government slightly increased spending on ICT in the current financial year to Rwf32 billion from Rwf30 billion in the previous financial year to enable economic transformation.

Rwanda has particularly decided to revise technology and innovation policies and regulations to pave way for specific activities, which officials see the country can compete with the rest of the world.

For instance, at the moment, big firms including the likes of Qualcomm, JPMorgan and even MTN Group tend to outsource their call centre and IT services to companies that have specialized in that business.

India, Philippines, China, and Thailand are well known countries where these businesses are based. But as the pandemic hit the world, such businesses have struggled, slowing down the growth of the outsourcing industry.

Rwanda believes it can capitalize on this and position itself as an outsourcing destination.

"This would require favorable policies on affordable real estate, the internet as well as a robust data protection framework as most outsourcing becomes cloud-based," a plan reads in part.

Immediate plans

Government intends to improve the quality of mobile broadband services, increase fiber to the home (FTTH) services, particularly the city of Kigali, scale up telemedicine infrastructure, and increase availability of high computing infrastructure and hosting services.

Mobile broadband (3G and 4G) is currently at 95 per cent of national coverage, but the lockdown has significantly increased broadband usage and demand leading to congestion of mobile networks, especially in the city of Kigali.

According to Paula Ingabire, the Minister of Technology and Innovation, the government is working with the telecom companies, who are upgrading their infrastructure to meet the quality measures.

"RURA has conducted tests across the country, identified gaps and based on the assessment, the telcos have developed plans which we are closely monitoring as they implement," she said in a phone interview with The New Times.

MTN Rwanda officials told this paper the quality of services has degraded as a result of increased demand, and so they are currently upgrading their network infrastructure.

Fabrice Ndatira - Chief Technology Officer at MTN revealed that traffic increased by 40 per cent, and doubled in some residential areas.

"We fast-tracked our network expansions and identified 79 areas in all districts of Kigali requiring immediate upgrades. We have so far completed 54/79 expansions and expect completion by the end of this week," he said.

Government is also targeting full implementation of digital identity and trust service, improving cybersecurity resilience across all sectors, as well as on the current systems in the agriculture sector to track food productivity across the whole country.

There is also a plan to establish guidelines to open up data sets to spur crisis innovation.

According to the plan, thermal cameras will be installed in public spaces and buildings that attract mass gatherings and buildings, while deployment of GPS enabled wristbands will be made to support quarantine measures.

Digital literacy, e-commerce

The Government said it will encourage shifting focus on increasing digital literacy among the workforce through online training and assessments, as well as review security standards and practices to align with remote working approaches.

There is a target to continue online training for IT officers in Government institutions in order to drive the digitization programme.

Among other plans, the government is going to work to determine the right incentives package to support digitization and increased connectivity to drive demand for high-tech jobs.

It also seeks to fast track Procurement for Innovation Policy to increase market access.

To promote e-commerce, a plan has been agreed upon to extend waivers for transaction fees to encourage contactless methods of payment, and revise Merchant Discount Rates (MDR) to encourage digital payments adoption.

The merchant discount rate is the rate charged to a merchant for payment processing services on debit and credit card transactions.

Albert Munyabugingo, the founder of Vuba Vuba, an online delivery service, says electronic payment is a key feature to drive e-commerce and so waiving transaction costs means the uptake will go up.

"Obviously when we talk about e-commerce the very big pioneer is e-payments, one in making sure that it is safer because drivers don't have to move around with cash, and second delivery services are faster," he noted.

"Of course the cost of transaction is another aspect that determines how much electronic businesses will increase or not. That being waived means the uptake will go up," he added.

When transactions were waived on things like mobile money during the lockdown, Munyabugingo says clients who pay with electronic payment increased from 32 per cent to 67 per cent.

The strategies developed under the economic recovery plan are meant to be implemented between May 2020 and July 2022.

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