afrol News, 30 October - Agrarian, poor Rwanda has set up an ICT Commission headed by its President that has adopted a national ICT Policy for the country, committing it to transforming itself from an essentially agrarian economy to a knowledge-based society within twenty years. Jonathan Miller and Philip Esselaar look at the progress Rwanda is making and what it needs to tackle in the near future.
Imagine a tiny, beautiful, land-locked, densely populated and extremely poor African country that seven years ago was the site of a devastating civil war and genocide that left it in tatters. Now imagine a country that sets up an ICT Commission headed by its President; that adopts a national ICT Policy for the country and that sets up a top level national IT Agency to oversee a 400-page 5-year US$ 500 million plan and strategy for ICT. And finally imagine a country that commits to transforming itself from an essentially agrarian economy to a knowledge-based society within twenty years and that plans to become a services center in its region, despite being poorer than its neighbours and much less well-endowed with natural resources. Hard to reconcile these images, but they are indeed all of Rwanda.
Rwanda's President Paul Kagame is leading by example, taking computer classes and urging his colleagues to take Rwanda into the "information age". The country has a long way to go, but if the drive of the President and the enthusiasm of many of his officials are anything to go by, Rwanda could become a fascinating example of a nation reborn with the help of ICT.
Considering the enormous difficulties that Rwanda has had to overcome in the last few years, the growth from zero base of the telecomm infrastructure and services has been impressive. Nevertheless the country has one of the lowest penetrations of telephone access in the world, with just 3.1 fixed lines per 1000 inhabitants, and a high ratio of inactive (disconnected) to active subscribers.
In contrast, the take-up of mobile telephony has been rapid; there are now more than twice as many mobile phones (mainly pre-paid) as there are fixed lines. The gap is widening despite the fact that mobile telephony is perhaps twenty times more expensive for local calls than fixed line calls. Fixed and mobile markets in Rwanda remain monopolies, although legislation is passing through Parliament to open up both.
With the great preponderance of economic activity other than agriculture concentrated around Kigali, It is hardly surprising that the initial growth of the internet took place almost exclusively there. Of an estimated 2700 Internet subscribers (Jan 2001), about 2500 are in the capital city. There are 362 Internet hosts in the country, 103 installed in the year 2000.
There are only three Internet Service Providers in Rwanda. One is the incumbent Telecomm operator, RwandaTel, the only official commercial ISP in the country, and the other two are the major tertiary institutions the National University of Rwanda(NUR) and the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST). The latter two provide their services with the approval of RwandaTel. Both KIST and NUR obtain their international bandwidth through the use of VSAT dishes, installed as part of the USAID Leland initiative.
Each institution has 128k (uplink) and 256k (downlink) available, with RwandaTel providing an additional 1Mb of international bandwidth. The use of VSAT is permitted under licence from the Regulator. There are some twelve Internet Cafes in Kigali with charges of about US$ 1 per hour; some share a single line and a 33.6 modem over a few computers, so bandwidth is very limited. They all seem popular, being frequented mainly by young people.
Use of the internet outside of the cafes is expensive, with a monthly subscription of about US$ 46 for a dial-up customer, over and above call charges of US$ 1 an hour. As a consequence, there is little private usage. The charge for a 64k leased line is exorbitant (US$ 2500 per month). At present there is no peering point in Rwanda (for local routing of local traffic).
With regard to the nature of internet usage, it appears to be limited essentially to email and some informational websurfing. While there are some tourism sites, electronic commerce as such is non-existent in Rwanda.
This is not surprising given the fledgling private sector, the primitive banking system, virtually no credit card operations and an essentially cash-based economy. For instance tourists who wish to visit the mountain gorillas (regarded by most as an awe-inspiring experience) must pay their US$ 250 permit to the government in greenbacks - no local currency, no credit cards, no travelers cheques are accepted.
And the use of the Internet for educational purposes is currently limited to the NUR and KIST, who both have successful programmes to provide basic computer training and providing access to their students and staff. Computers and the Internet are virtually non-existent in the school system and this situation is likely to prevail as long as most schools have no electricity or telephones.
If the government is to achieve it's ambitious goals for the country, it must face the major challenge of introducing meaningful competition across the telecommunications spectrum, made more difficult now in light of the deteriorating global prospects for the industry. This will result in a reduction of prices for internet access, a top priority if the industry is to grow.
These actions need to be supported by a radical overhaul of the banking and logistics systems; faster delivery of basic services; and improved training for computer technicians and entry level computing skills. Little of this will have an impact if significant progress is not made on some of the pressing social and political problems.
There are still over 120,000 genocide suspects in prison, some certainly innocent, and attempts to speed up the judicial process have not succeeded so far; there is a low-intensity war on the North-West border; the economy is heavily dependent on Aid money; and the private sector is small, nervous and inhibited.
It would be hard to imagine a country anywhere with more obstacles to overcome. Heroic attempts are being made to improve this position. The country is trying to move away from ethnic discrimination; efforts to promote peace in the region are on-going; a bold experiment to speed up the judicial process by allowing genocide detainees to be tried by local tribunals (the Gacaca) is under way; the international community is extensively engaged; highly skilled expatriates have returned to the country; and there is a tangible feeling of the need for reconciliation.
Rapid introduction of the internet poses a significant risk in Rwanda, with a fragile civil society susceptible to propaganda. But what Rwanda does have is a President who is convinced that ICT has a central role to play in the development of the country.
With the assistance of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), an extensive 5-year ICT-led Socio-Economic Development Policy and Plan has been completed and some of the structures recommended therein are already in place. Coupled with a stable internal security situation, and some dedicated people who are determined to make the new Rwanda a success, it provides hope that Rwanda can rise, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of its genocide and civil war.
By Jonathan Miller and Philip Esselaar, Miller Esselaar and Associates
Source: This article is reproduced with special permission from Balancing Act