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.
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."
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.
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."