Rwanda Could Be The Next Silicon Valley: But it Needs Youth to Help it Get There
It only takes one glance around the room to see the role technology plays in Rwandan lives.
Last November I was in Kigali for the Transform Africa Summit. Looking out at the crowd from the panelists’ stage, I saw a sea of iPads and smartphones staring back at me. It was a truly connected room.
In Rwanda, technology isn’t just being adopted — it’s being embraced.
Across Kigali, cranes and construction mark an impressive turn for the country. International companies hoping to snag a piece of the growing African market are paying attention to the country’s progress. Technology is helping Rwanda to compete as a hub against very tough competition, with Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and others all vying for position.
As someone who has been working in Rwanda since 2010 with incredible women, youth, and men, it has been inspiring to see the dedication to technology and connectivity in the country.
One of my most powerful collaborations has been with a woman named Violette Uwamutara, Digital Opportunity Trust Rwanda’s Country Director. She is a tireless advocate and role model for equality of information and communications technology (ICT) adoption in Rwanda, regardless of socio-economic standing and gender. I thrive on learning from the local experts working in the field.
She was telling me the good news that came from a recent ICT study in Rwanda.
Figures released by the country’s Ministry of Youth and ICT in October show the ICT sector has contributed more than two per cent over the last six months to the country’s increasing gross domestic product. To put this into perspective, the average ICT-to-GDP ratio in Africa sits at just over one per cent. This compares to 2012, when Rwanda was below average, with ICT contribution to GDP at less than 0.5 per cent.
This performance reinforces what a recent McKinsey & Company study demonstrated: invest in ICT and a country’s GDP will rise.
There is a massive transformation underway in one of Africa’s fastest growing economies. Much like Silicon Valley has done for America, Kigali is becoming a hub and incubator for brilliant minds in East Africa, and the world.
It starts a the top — Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Jean Philbert Nsengimana, the Minister of Youth and ICT, are relentless promoters of the ICT sector. At the “Smart Rwanda” conference earlier this month, both declared that ICT and broadband Internet access is not a luxury product, but as much a necessity and public utility as water and electricity.
A bold statement in a country of many challenges, but from my experience, Rwanda is walking the talk.
High-level leadership is paying off. Internet usage in the country has nearly tripled to 1.2 million people since 2009. The ICT competition in Africa is fierce, but Rwanda’s relatively small size — both geographically and population-wise — means it can mobilize and digitize quickly.
But as much as ICT needs to be supported by the government, it also needs to be understood and embraced by the people. The fact that the word “youth” is mentioned in the name of the Ministry overseeing the sector is telling. The government “gets” that youth will be the ones driving the charge and change.
So what comes next?
I think the magic happens when you pair ICT and entrepreneurship.
Consider this: despite the increase in Internet use, 90 per cent of the labor force still works in the agriculture sector. Which is to say, it’s not enough to simply introduce people to technology — you need to provide them with the additional skills to identify opportunities and to transform technology into employment for themselves and their communities. Conventional sectors, such as agriculture, and their value chains offer a wealth of opportunities as they innovate to compete. Digitally enabled jobs will abound.
We must support young people with both access to technology, and the modern know-how to use it.
In 2016, Rwanda will enter the fourth and final stage of its National Information Communications Infrastructure (NICI) plan, the 20-year road map to digitize the nation. A goal of this stage is to ensure ICT contributes to community development.
As I saw at the Transform Africa Summit, those next steps start in the classrooms, youth centres and in the minds of the people behind those iPads.
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