Rwanda, which lacks raw materials and industry, wants to become a knowledge-based economy. The government is investing in information and communications technology.
On a hilly slope in the middle of Kigali, they are trying to forge Rwanda's future. A narrow path leads to a modest house. This is where Sylvie Umutesi and Stanley Mwizerwa have their office. A table with two laptops in a bare room, that is all they need. They are software developers. Information technology is going to lift Rwanda out of poverty - at least according to President Paul Kagame's development plan "Vision 2020."
Umutesi and Mwizerwa founded their software company three years ago. Their first projects were a calendar for doctors' visiting hours and software that delivered advice to farmers. Using text messaging or the Internet, farmers could ask experts for help on how to improve their harvests.
The biggest challenge was not developing the software, but overcoming the skepticism they encountered among ordinary Rwandans. They had to offer their software free of charge for a long time before they could gain the trust of potential customers, who initially couldn't see how they could possibly derive any benefit from the software.
Mentors and space to fail
The kLab (knowledge Lab) was founded in Kigali in 2012 to give support to the young generation of information and telecommunication technology (ICT) specialists. At the kLab, young people are bent over their laptops, hard at work on the sixth floor of a building with a commanding view of the tower blocks brightly lit against Kigali's night sky. The lab is financed by the Rwandan government, businesses and development aid organizations. Software developers can use the premises free of charge, exchange ideas with colleagues and mentors and present their projects to an informed and interested audience.
Charles Mutabazi is about to do just that. He is standing somewhat apprehensively in front of a huge screen. He's presenting a text messaging app that enables students to access their exam results. But not everybody is impressed. "It's a good idea to digitalize the system," somebody in the audience says, "but where is your innovation, where are your ideas?"
Kigali's kLab is part of the Rwandan government's drive to boost information and communications technology
Unlike Charles, Claude Migisha relishes this sort of criticism. He has been running kLab since it was founded in June of last year. He wants the young computer programers to be given both challenges and encouragement. "One of the ideas behind kLab was to create a space in which people could fail, pick themselves up, start again and eventually succeed."
Difficulties with the network
There was polite applause for Charles at the end of his presentation. The constructive criticism he heard will find its way into his project after the meeting is over. "If I have a particular problem, or have just been given a particular suggestion then I can go to a mentor and ask him questions that are important for my project," he said. If that doesn't help, Charles and his colleagues can always bridge the creative gap with a game of table soccer.
The Rwandan government appears to be determined to give the country's ICT sector a big boost. Thousands of kilometers of glass fiber optic cable have been laid and in the capital Kigali, wifi connections to the Internet are available free of charge. More than half of Rwandans own a mobile phone, a quarter go online. But the network is not very stable and access is expensive. Competition between Internet providers is still in its infancy and quantity of data that can be relayed is limited. It is difficult to imagine the country becoming an ICT hub on the continent anytime soon.
Migisha prefers to highlight the progress that Rwanda has made in recent years. "My experience is that the Internet in Rwanda is really fast. And with time it will get even better. The government is investing a lot in a high speed Internet because we want to become a service economy," he said.