Rwanda forges new path with technology revolution

rwandan woman checks her mobile phone while walking up a slopeImage copyright

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Mobile phones have transformed many Rwandans’ lives

Returning to Rwanda after an absence of several years, the BBC’s Milton Nkosi finds a country which has undergone astonishing technological change.

The Rwandan capital Kigali was a hive of activity this week as the city hosted the World Economic Forum on Africa.

The land of a thousand hills is shaking off its negative image as a country forever linked with the 1994 genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed.

It is breaking old stereotypes not just about itself but also as an African nation.

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An Argentinean company set up this factory making computers

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Foreign business owners are attracted by Rwanda’s cheap, skilled labour market

The technology and innovation projects dotted all around this city are generating a new, positive narrative, led by a new generation of young entrepreneurs, bursting with great ideas.

In the Kigali suburb of Gikondo, I caught the number 205 bus for the city centre, paying the fare with a quick tap of my pre-paid smart card.

Commuters along the route boarded the bus quickly and easily, taking advantage of the new cashless payment system.

There were no delays or arguments about change, the kind you are almost guaranteed to encounter when taking public transport in many other African cities.

The modern bus was fitted with a TV at the front, which played out music videos for those not already texting or making calls on their mobiles.

On the outskirts of Kigali, I visit the assembly plant for a Latin American computer company, another example of the country’s technological progress and attractiveness to foreign investors.

Media captionRwanda is becoming a magnet for high-tech investment

As I walk into Positivo GBH in Kigali’s Gasabo neighbourhood, I see a clean white factory floor, a laboratory-like space measuring 3,000 sq ft.

Young Rwandans are working on the assembly line building computers.

I ask the Juan Ignacio Ponelli, the Argentinean involved in the decision to establish the company’s first African office here: “Why Rwanda?”

“Why not?” he replies, with a confident smile.

“We had been talking to different African countries but I have to say Rwanda moved fast. They have a strong anti-corruption drive and the country has been growing at about 8% per annum for the last few years.”

Back in the centre of Kigali, I visit FabLab, an innovation hub at the government-backed Information and Communication Technology (ICT) park, which is expected to receive $150m (£105m) of investment.

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3D printers are among the emerging technologies being promoted at the ICT park

There I met young tech entrepreneurs working on 3D and laser printers.

Amongst them a familiar face is being shown around the room. Tony Blair, the former UK Prime Minister and the patron of the Africa Governance Initiative.

“What they are doing here is not just incubating technology firms but seeing how the latest developments in technology can help revolutionise the rest of the economy,” he tells me.

Shikama Dioscore, the founder and CEO of Go Ltd, a mobile app development company, shares the former UK leader’s optimism:

“We are excited about empowering the youth, especially in technology,” he says.

But it’s not all smooth sailing. One of the key challenges is the country’s low internet penetration.

According to the most recent figures, 13% of Rwandans are online. But the government has published ambitious plans to increase that to 95% by the end of 2016, with the planned rollout of a 4G mobile network.

As Anne Jellema, chief executive of the Web Foundation, which is working to extend the “basic right” of connectivity to people across the world, tells me:

“Everyone deserves to be connected to fast, affordable, safe and transparent Internet. Nowhere is this need more urgent that it is here in Africa, where four in five people remain offline today.”

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