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Web Foundation Visits Rwanda

Stéphane Boyera · June 13, 2011

internet offer in kigali
internet offer in kigali

After Tanzania and Dar es Salam, Max and I continued our trip to Rwanda. After a couple of issues -Kenya Airways canceling our flight to Kigali, then my credit card getting blocked by my nice bank (Société Générale, you rock!), and finally our total empty pockets at the border of Rwanda to pay for visas- we eventually reached the nice quiet town of Kigali on Monday.

As a side note, I want to thank border customs who were very helpful, helping us to get money to pay for their visas, bringing us to ATM and then money exchange, etc. very nice guys. It is rare enough to mention it.

The aim of our visit was to conduct a field assessment to evaluate the potential of a mobile entrepreneurship initiative like the one we have in Ghana or Kenya in Rwanda. This study is very close to the one we ran last june in Accra, Ghana.

It was a real marathon: 27 meetings in four days! Definetly a record! We met a very good set of representatives from different sectors: private IT companies, Universities, NGOs, students, entrepreneurs, government representatives,the telecoms regulator, all the mobile operators, international development agencies… This was largely enough for us to gain a good sense of the local context.

We will write a detailed report that consolidates all the interviews and discussions we conducted. Our current schedule is to publish it by the end of the month. In the meantime, let me briefly give my first impressions.

There are clearly lots of similarities with Ghana, but there also is a lot of very specific points. On the similarities, I can mention the excitement among students, the general shared view that hands-on experience is missing at the student level at the end of their curriculum, the understanding of the potential market by IT companies, the difficulties to deal with operators, the complete lack of community events or initiative in the mobile domain, the almost complete lack of capacity building initiatives in the mobile domain.

Woman buying fruits in Kigali
Rwanda Economy is still 80%+ based on agriculture

We can split the differences in three categories:

  • The Government approach to ICT is considered as the most promising opportunity by President Kagame for the development of the country. This political will translates in practice into the very active Rwanda Development Board which already runs a few initiatives in the domain, e.g. IT incubators, farming applications or government services, and tries as much as possible to bring to the country new skills and capacities to develop the domain. Given this proactive behavior, ICT is seen as a very promising domain and that view encourages students to develop their skills in that area. Therefore there is a lot of interests for IT, and an incredible interest for learning more.Given the official stand on making Rwanda the African ICT hub, the country attracts lots of international intervention in the domain, e.g. MIT AITI which is globally a very good thing, even if these interventions are more external and punctual rather than locally owned and sustainable.
  • The very low level of unemployment for people with a computer science background. Related to the previous point, the pro-activeness of the government and its intervention in the development of applications makes it one of the major creators of jobs in the IT domain (directly or indirectly), leading to a very low rate of unemployment in the domain. This is a major difference with e.g. Ghana, which might lead to a lesser appeal for entrepreneurship.
  • The absence of a community approach in IT
    mobile operator antenna
    mobile operator antenna

    Finally, I was very surprised to find out that there are globally very few community activities, at least in the IT domains. While in most African countries I’ve been to, there are e.g. Linux User Groups, ISOC chapters or Google Technology User Groups, we couldn’t find any of this kind of groups in Rwanda. However, many of the people we met, particularly students and IT companies expressed the need and the wish for such communities in the mobile domain, we might find that traditional community building activities have to be adapted to the context. On the other hand, we were impressed by the young age of the CEOs we met. Most companies we visited are managed by young entrepreneurs who all started recently (less than 10 years ago). The consequence is that they are part of the mobile generation, and are far more open and interested in this topic, compared to similar sized companies we met in other countries. This may result in a more active role of the private sector in the community.

wild life in town
wild life in town

To conclude, I’m convinced that a mobile entrepreneurship project in Rwanda has a lot of potential. It is now obvious to me that people and the market are ready to take off, and bringing a spark might bootstrap the process leading to a vibrant mobile content and services market.

Finally, a few words about the country itself. Rwanda is a very green and very beautiful country (at least in Kigali and from the plane) but also a very surprising one. It has been a long time since I was so surprised by a country. On paper, Rwanda is relatively close, and generally ranked as less developed than its neighbors (e.g. with regards to Human Development Index or GDP level). In reality, it is impressively different. There are big roads everywhere, very clean streets, beautiful new buildings, incredibly new and clean local buses, beautiful new big cars everywhere in the streets, quiet and peaceful drivers (almost no horns!!)… From a newcomer like me it seems very rich. One of the people we talked to explained to us that there is almost no informal sector and related activities. This is exactly it. No hawkers in the street, almost zero street vendors… This is so different compared to all other sub-Saharan countries I’ve been to.

I really hope now that we will be able to launch activities in the next few months. Stay tuned for the complete report in the coming weeks.

PS:  The departure from the country was as problematic as the arrival … KLM, like its sister Kenya Airways, canceled our flight back to Amsterdam due to technical problems, after a stop in Entebbe, Uganda. So We spent an extra weekend in Kampala and eventually returned to home sweet home on Sunday at 5pm for me, 30 hours later than expected !!!

Max and Steph lost in translation in Entebbe
Max and Steph lost in translation in Entebbe

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  1. Manu

    August 23, 2011

    Nice one, guys. Wish I could have met you while you were here, but perhaps next time. But take a look at this ( if you have a minute. It's a report we wrote for UN FAO on eSoko agriculture market information system in Rwanda using mobile.


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