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Last Updated: Friday, 8 July, 2005, 15:28 GMT 16:28 UK
Rwanda's dream for hi-tech Africa
Dan Simmons
By Dan Simmons
Reporter, BBC Click Online

Eleven years after a horrific genocide in which 800,000 Rwandans died, this small African country is hoping to lead Africa into a new hi-tech age.

Rural Rwanda
Many in rural Rwanda rely on subsistence farming

In Kigali, Rwanda's capital, entrepreneurs sit by the road offering to type up letters for a small fee.

For many reasons, this former Belgian colony has, like most of Africa, been slow to start using modern technology.

Outside the cities many rely on subsistence farming. Historically there has been little need for hi-tech, but in recent years this country has been harbouring a great ambition.

While villagers dig to sow the seeds for the next crop, other workers use similar tools to dig towards a longer-term goal.

High-speed data links are beginning to span the country, because Rwanda dreams of leading Africa into the information age.

Changing lives

The laying of fibre optic cables is considered too expensive to cover the vast tracts of land between the cites of most African nations. Rwanda, however, is small and densely populated.

The digging and laying of fibre optic cables
More than half Rwanda's population may be linked up in five years
Already this year the capital has been connected to the next main town, Gitarama. The plan is to link up all the five main population centres by the end of this year, reaching more than half the population.

Base stations along the way will allow wireless connections to the cable from several kilometres away.

Anyone who is patched in will benefit from data transfer speeds of up to 2Mbps, offering phone, internet, and television services.

Manholes mean the network can be expanded in the future. It will be quicker, more reliable, and cheaper to run than the satellite links used in neighbouring countries.

The company in charge, Terracom, believes it will change lives, as Sandra Rwamushaija, the finance director, explains.

"Lots of Rwandans haven't even left Kigali or Rwanda, so this will be able to make them aware of what's going on outside Rwanda, out of their little area," he says.

"It will be able to give them more vision of what else they can do rather than what they are used to. They'll be able to think of new ways of bringing in money other than just agriculture."

Education drive

The government, schools and businesses are coming online first, but at $125 a month the network is far too expensive for most individuals.

Kigali's new Institute aims to fill Rwanda's skills gap
So, like in most of Africa, it is at internet cafes where ordinary people may notice the change.

Last year the owner of one cafe told me he had been plagued by connection problems when using the phone network to get online.

Now, on fibre optics, he can offer his customers a reliable link at more than twice the speed.

However, Rwanda's hi-tech dream is still haunted by its worst nightmare. Up to a million people were killed here during the genocide in 1994, and the murderers targeted the educated.

The fighting ended with a new government determined to change the nation's fortunes.

While most African nations talked about a digital divide, Rwanda was busy bridging it. It offered tax breaks to technology investors and attracted foreign aid.

One building, which used to be army barracks, now plays a key role in filling Rwanda's skills gap.

The Kigali Institute of Science, Technology and Management (KIST) now trains more than 3,000 students.

Rwanda's secondary school teachers come here to learn how best to pass on computer skills to the next generation. In another classroom the lesson is how different parts of a PC work.

Students at KIST
Gaston Rangira is helping young Rwandans to train for skilled IT jobs
Gaston Rangira, a computer instructor at KIST, says: "They can install different devices to computers and configure them. They can repair programs that have got a problem, and diagnose a problem with the computer."

As well as offering three-year degree courses, the institute also has shorter, fast-track schemes which are more affordable.

Professor Eliphis Bisanda, Registrar at KIST, says: "After four months somebody is ready to go and work.

"This is actually what the country needs now, because the demand for information communication technology professionals and technicians is very high."

At the moment there are more jobs in IT than skilled labour, fuelling an enthusiasm here to learn.

Yves Kimenyi Gatsinzi, a graduate from KIST, adds: "I'm now in a good position, managing around 200 PCs, seven servers and four subnets."

Mountains to climb

Rwanda's President, Paul Kagame, is credited with being the driving force behind the changes, and has high hopes for the country.

Genocide memorial in Kigali
The memorial in Kigali remembers more than 800,000 killed in 1994
He told BBC Click Online: "We want to move faster, we want to move beyond where we are. The only constraint is limited resources, but I think resources are coming and we have to move fast in terms of training our people. I think the progress is quite good.

"The aim is to make Rwanda the hub of the region."

In Kigali itself even wi-fi is now available in a few places. To Western eyes these advances are not anything new, but in Africa they are significant steps.

At the same time Rwanda has some much more basic mountains to climb before its dream can come true.

Most people here live in poverty, without electricity. Most children do not make it to secondary school.

The government and corporate sectors will certainly benefit from the strides this small African nation is making, and the hope is that, through getting more schools online and specific computer training, Rwanda's people will too.

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0730 . Also BBC World.

Rwanda's 100 days of genocide
02 Apr 04 |  Africa
Country profile: Rwanda
11 May 05 |  Country profiles


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