Rwanda aims to become Africa's high-tech hub
The African country aims to turn itself into the 'Singapore of Africa.'
Sometime in the next two years, nearly every school in Rwanda – from distant mountain villages to swelling urban areas – will be hooked up to the Internet. And it won't be some crummy dial-up service. It will be high-speed broadband, carried by fiber-optic cables.Skip to next paragraph
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The fact that Rwanda is closing in on this goal without having the massive oil wealth of Angola or Sudan, the diamonds of Congo or South Africa, or even the copper of nearby Zambia is a testimony to the power of imagination. And Rwanda imagines that one day, it will be the information technology center of Africa.
"In 2000, we decided to transform the country from agricultural subsistence to a knowledge-based economy," says Albert Butare, Rwanda's minister of state for energy and communications. With two fiber-optic rings around Kigali, and cable being laid across the country, Rwanda is well on its way to being wired. "Once we've reached the towns of each sector, it's like you've covered the whole country. In another two years, we should be there."
The Singapore of Africa?
Rwanda's dream of becoming the Singapore of Africa – an information-technology hub for the resource-rich nations of Eastern and Central Africa – is a point of pride for the government, a matter of concern for some Rwandans, and a curiosity for just about everyone else.
Government officials and business leaders see high-tech as the best way to lift one of the world's least-developed countries into a better position to compete globally. Local human rights activists fret that Rwanda's money could be better spent on things like drinking water and electricity.
Countries like Rwanda, which rank among the world's least developed countries (LDCs), don't easily become high-tech hubs. Sixty percent of Rwandans live below the poverty line, defined by the UN as an income of less than a dollar a day. According to a 2005 study by the Australian National University, LDCs make up 10 percent of the world's population and represent only 0.13 percent of the world's Internet users.
Yet, there are hopeful signs. Nearly 70 percent of Rwanda's adults can read and write. This fact, combined with Rwanda's dense population – almost all of whom speak the same language, Kinyarwanda – make the country a much better place for establishing an Internet hub than Rwanda's resource-rich, ethnically diverse, and less-educated neighbors.
By spending $65 million on broadband, part of a 20-year strategy to turn the country from an agricultural economy into a high-tech service economy, Rwanda hopes to tap into its single most valuable resource: its people. "This country is very hierarchical, and whatever the government decides to do, it will do, and society will follow in a very disciplined way," says Antoine Bigirimana, president of Electronic Tools Company, a Sonoma, Calif.-based software company with projects in Rwanda. "That culture can be used to do very bad things, like the genocide, or you can use it for good, to make the society better."