How to Cross the Digital Divide, Rwanda-Style

ge_rwa_fiber_02Whenever I tell someone the countries I’m hitting for my new book, they start out nodding, then the nodding slows, then they just get confused. “China, India, Brazil, Israel and…Rwanda.” Then there’s the inevitable question: “Rwanda? Is there even any technology in Rwanda?” Sometimes I even get asked if I have to stay in a tent when I go there.

The answer to the second question is no. There are plenty of hotels, and I don’t do tents unless they have outlets and wifi.

The answer to the tech question two fold. First: Despite the last decade of covering nothing but tech, I actually consider myself more of a reporter who covers entrepreneurs. It just so happens that’s normally correlated with technology, especially in the U.S. But increasingly some of the best opportunities to build the next great billion-dollar company even in markets like India and China are more tech-enabled service and product businesses than classic high-tech plays. And really, are Web businesses even about the sheer technology anymore these days?

Second: Yes, there is technology in Rwanda. And there will be more in the next few years. Rwanda is emerging rwanda-computer-muralas an interesting test case on how a digital divide is actually being bridged in a methodical, well-thought-out, step-by-step manner.

The first step was basic connection to one another and the Web over cell phones. Nearly everyone has a cell phone in Rwanda—even people in some of the poorest, most remote areas of the country. My Rwandan SIM card and enough minutes to last a month cost me the equivalent of $12 US dollars. It’s one of the only things that’s cheap in a land-locked country that has to import most everything it consumes. And the cell phone connection works everywhere—even on winding dirt roads where there’s no electricity. We could get a connection on safari in the middle of nowhere, but we can’t seem to get a good connection in our living room in the middle of San Francisco. Who’s the developing nation now, America?

The second step is being rolled out now, literally. Everywhere you go in Rwanda, there are huge spools of fiber optic cable. In two years, every district of the country will be connected to each other and the Internet—something the United States can’t boast. It’s being operated by a private company, but the Rwandan government owns the fiber infrastructure and welcomes competing players to make sure no one company has too much power over the country’s Web access, according to Nkubito Manzi Bakuramutsa, the deputy CEO of Rwanda’s Development Board in charge of IT.

rwanda-googleThe next steps are being coordinated by the government as well: Rwanda sends 300 students at a time to India Institute of Technology to develop skills in hardware, software and telecom they can bring back to their home country. When one kid graduates, another one gets to go. Why IIT? It’s cheaper than Western schools, just as good at training engineers, and has a better understanding of the challenges and needs of emerging markets, Bakuramutsa says. In addition, Rwanda hopes their kids will pick up some of the Indians’ entrepreneurial spirit. (Pay attention here, US: We’re no longer the education destination of choice for the emerging world.)

And of course, you need computers to use all that fiber and enjoy all those new Web applications being built by these kids. Right now, all thirty districts of the country have Internet centers with fifty computers for surfing the web at the low cost of fifty cents per hour, and several more computers for learning computer basics, like rwanda-cybercafe1Microsoft Word. There are also privately run Internet cafes dotting the country.

One Laptop per Child just opened a computer learning center in Rwanda’s capital city – in fact, the OLPC folks were in the country at the same time I was doing more outreach. But the Rwandan government isn’t going to leave it up to others. The country itself is buying 100,000 low-cost laptops in the next year to distribute between teachers and students in the country. “I’m in charge of IT here, and I’m rarely short of cash,” Bakuramutsa says with a smile. Last year the government spent $43 million on all of this; this year he says that’s increasing to $100 million.

So where the hell is all this money coming from in a so-called poor African nation? A lot of it traces back to aid and foreign investment. The national budget for Rwanda is 60% taxes and income from the country itself and 40% from “partners”—a lot of those partners are countries and organizations that let Rwanda down during its brutal 1994 Genocide and are stepping up to help the country rebuild. President Paul Kagame has long said he’d rather have foreign investment in Rwanda than foreign aid. But, clearly he’ll take it to make the country a place that one day doesn’t need aid. Call it guilt money if you want, but at least the country is putting it to good use.

The man in charge of all of this, Bakuramutsa, is a Rwandan national but never actually lived in the country until 2007. Just before moving back, he spent a number of years in California working for Hewlett Packard, so ge_rwa_computerhe knows tech. He dreams of a totally automated Rwandan society—one where even the milking of cows is automated. That’s a pretty big leap from the Rwanda of today— where city councils pay people dollars a day to manually trim the grass on the side of highways with machetes and sickles. First steps will include all government forms are moving online in the country, along with medical records.

All that automation is where those 300 IIT grads come in. For Rwanda to truly bridge the digital divide it’ll need locally developed sites and software, and there’s a lot of work to be done. I don’t think anyone is translating Wikipedia or Facebook into Kinyarwandan any time soon, and local Web sites and information pages for Rwandan businesses, hotels and attractions are lacking-to-non-existent. To make an appointment to see the famous Silverback gorillas, you have to physically go to an office in Kigali and pay $500 in cash. In fact almost every place in Rwanda only accepts cash. And if you’re paying in US dollars—the date on the bills better be later than the year 2000. That’s not exactly going to be e-commerce friendly.

When Bakuramutsa says he wants to build a mini-Silicon Valley in Rwanda, he means less a region that will birth the next Hewlett Packard or Google, and more a place that can churn out IT services for Rwanda first, and surrounding countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda second. IT is core not only for the education, rwanda-computer-trainingconnectivity and productivity, but the future economic development of Rwanda.

The tiny country is blessed with some of the most fertile soil in Africa, but few rich deposits of minerals and very little manufacturing and industry. 90% of its people are subsistence farmers, and with a booming population there is not enough land for that kind of economy to scale. Many in the country doubt they can compete with more mature industrial economies of like those in Kenya and Uganda when it comes to manufacturing to say nothing of the dirt-cheap prices of making things in China.

But IT services? Few places in Africa can call that a specialty. And that’s why Bakuramutsa never has a lack of money to invest in IT: Rwanda isn’t just trying to bridge a digital divide—but an economic one.