Rwanda aims to become Africa's high-tech hub
The African country aims to turn itself into the 'Singapore of Africa.'
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The key, says Mr. Bigirimana, a top adviser to the Rwandan government on its 20-year technology plan, is to use technology that fits Rwanda's conditions and budget. For urban areas, Rwanda should import refurbished computers in the $200 price range. For rural areas with little or no electricity, he envisions solar-powered 12-volt, 8-watt computers being pioneered by the San Francisco based company Inveneo, priced at around $70.Skip to next paragraph
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Rwanda's model for success
Tying them all together will be a network of privately owned telecenters, some of them hooked up to fiber-optic cable, others making use of mobile phone broadcast towers for their Internet access.
According to the plan, these telecenters will give every Rwandan town high-speed domestic broadband Internet access. This would allow middle class Rwandans to find out about business opportunities, educated people to find jobs, and farmers to get better prices for their crops. Eventually, it would provide education for those illiterate Rwandans whom the Internet has so far passed by.
"Poverty is not a permanent state," Bigirimana says. He rejects Singapore as a model, saying, "We have to develop our own model, listing our strengths and weaknesses. If we can take half of the underclass that can read and write, and bring them into the middle class, and if we can educate the rest in how to read and write, you will see this country change."
Rwanda's high-tech plans are not universally applauded. One independent newspaper, Newsline, called the plan a misuse of public funds, while several aid groups have criticized it as an investment in the rich at the expense of the poor.
"This idea is far ahead of the current situation for the majority of the people," said one human rights activist, speaking on condition of anonymity. "You can't build a school and take a student to study before you give him something to eat. You can't invest in such a long-term policy when people are so poor."
Peter Niyigena, owner of an Internet café in Kigali, was more enthusiastic. "I don't know if we'll become like Singapore, but it's good to know where we are going," he says.
"This isn't a question of choosing between water and sanitation [on one hand], and providing high-speed broad-band [on the other]," says Laurent Besançon, a senior regulatory specialist and telecom expert at the World Bank office in Johannesburg.
"But if you look at the medium or long term," he says, "public investment in information and communication technology (ICT), combined with sound regulation, can help you go beyond the basics and be a major catalyst of additional private sector investment. In Rwanda, I believe that using ICT will enable not just the half of the population who can read and write to get ahead, but it will also help elevate the other half as well."