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Page last updated at 10:43 GMT, Friday, 2 October 2009 11:43 UK

Rwanda forges ahead with IT goals

Internet bus
Soon there will be six internet buses making visits to remote villages

Back in 2005, Click visited Rwanda, to see how the tiny African country was trying to emerge from the ravages of war and lead the region into the information age. Four years on, Dan Simmons returns to Kigali to see if the dream is coming true.

Something new has arrived in a tiny Rwandan village, in Kamonyi district. A grand government plan to give everyone access to computers and the web is reaching areas where some have not even seen a PC before. It is causing quite a stir.

The excitement is all about a bus carrying 20 laptop computers, which is currently travelling the country offering internet services to students and local business people.

As the internet bus is connected up and brought to life children outside wait patiently to start their digital lives.

The laptops inside the bus share a connection that is not even half the average broadband speed in developed countries but it is a start, and it is free - for now, anyway.

This bus has been on the road for just a few weeks. Soon there will be six of these making regular visits to remote villages across the country. The idea is to introduce as many ordinary Rwandans to computers and the net as possible.

Mixed progress

It is a steep learning curve. It is clear the children are not familiar with the basics, like choosing a name for their email account, passwords, or Captcha tests.

Even though tutors were on hand, I wondered just how vulnerable they would be to internet scams or web nasties like malware.

The project has funding from the World Bank till 2011 after which users may be asked to pay for access in areas that do not even have electricity.

Typist in Kigali
A rise in computer ownership means there are less typists on Kigali's streets

In 2005, I came here to find a country in a hurry. Laying high-speed fibre optic cables, it promised web access for schools, cable TV to homes, and cheaper, faster internet. Coming back it seems some of those goals have been missed.

Just a third of schools promised web access were connected. Technical difficulties and spiralling costs were blamed. Some cities are still not on the network.

The project has been taken on by another company aiming to finish the job by next year.

There are mixed signs of progress in the capital too. Four years ago 30 or so men would sit in the streets and type letters for people. This time around I had to search to find a lone typist, one of just a handful left. He blames a rise in computer ownership.

Rwanda does not tax IT goods - great news for the few who can afford them. But because of the growing number of PCs here some think connection speeds are actually slower now.

"Sometimes because of the high demand in the market, and the supply being very low they are not providing a proper service,'' says Devendra Kumar Sindhi, a foreign exchange owner.

Leaping ahead

But Rwanda's dream of becoming a high-tech country is about to take-off again. By next month the land-locked country will cease to rely on expensive and slow satellite connections to the rest of the world.

The fibre-optic data pipeline linking Kenya to Europe and India will soon arrive in Kigali, cutting wholesale internet costs by up to 90%.

The city's own fibre optic network will then offer some of the fastest connections in Africa.

Patrick Nyirishema
We know what it's like to be a country that is in ashes and now we're able to spring back with a reason and determination to... make this work

Schools are advancing too. From next year compulsory state education will teach to age 14 rather than 11.

Rwanda has joined the global one laptop per child program. Around 100,000 children have access to low-cost computers, and the government wants to extend that to more than one million children over the next few years.

Advances at the top of the class too - last time I visited, the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology was running short IT courses - in a desperate bid to fill the country's skills gap.

This time around the institute's rector had some good news. New computer labs were opened this year. The four-month courses have been replaced with four-year degrees.

Pass rates are up 20%. And so are potential earnings. Students can expect to earn $500 - $2,000 (£313 - £1,250) a month when they leave, which is a massive pay day in this part of the world.

Details neglected

And that is the main reason for Rwanda's move from an agricultural nation to a knowledge-based one.

Having emerged from the worst period of its history, the genocide of 1994, Rwanda has placed its faith in IT with some big promises - mobile phone use should double from just 20% to up to 40% by next year. The government is giving away 35,000 handsets to help that happen.

It wants a PC in every home within 10 years. And one of the most advanced plans to date can be found at Kigali's national stadium.

If any further evidence was needed that Rwanda is in a hurry to become Africa's ICT hub, then this is surely it, the South Koreans are here installing 4G Network called WiBro (Wireless Broadband) which will bring unparalleled connectivity across the city of Kigali.

Korea Telecom's base stations will be switched on in a few weeks time. Linked into the city's new fibre optic network, WiBro promises to deliver broadband mobile data speeds far in excess of most western 3G services.

It is becoming a typically Rwandan approach - aim big and sort the details out as you go, such as the fact that there are virtually no compatible WiBro handsets here.

The government says it may subsidise cheap WiBro imports as it is doing now for mobile phones.

Need for energy

"As a country we are in a hurry. We can't wait to fix water agriculture and roads and then get to ICT, so we've got to do everything in parallel because we've lost so much time in the last decades," says Patrick Nyirishema, director of Rwanda's Information Technology Authority.

"We've been to the bottom. We know what it's like to be a country that is in ashes and now we're able to spring back with a reason and determination to say, 'we're going to make this work, we're going to succeed,'" he adds.

To make the leap Rwanda also needs energy. High above Kigali is one of Africa's largest solar fields.

Methane gas discoveries, wind turbines, and new hydroelectricity stations could also power the dream. But progress in these areas has been slow. Fewer than one in ten here are on the electricity grid.

In its race to catch up, Rwanda still faces tough obstacles. But it has chosen not to think twice about trying to jump them, and not to fear should it fail.



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