Although Rwanda is one of the fastest growing African countries, it is in information and communication technology that it has stolen a march over other African nations.
“It (ICT) is the central engine that is driving our transformation to a knowledge-based economy and has helped create wealth, jobs, talent and entrepreneurs,” says Jean Philbert Nsengimana, Rwanda’s minister of youth and ICT.
China has played a big role in Rwanda’s ICT growth through hardware and software support and talent exchanges, he says.
“The ICT partnership with China is growing steadily with more trade exchanges and technology transfer.”
Rwanda is one of the few African nations that have put ICT and youth under one ministry so it can realize development goals in a concerted manner. “The world is going forward, and so is Rwanda,” Nsengimana says. “We are changing from an agrarian economy to a knowledge-based one and hence it is important to have a vast pool of skilled and trained youngsters, especially in ICT, because they will spearhead the future transition.
“It is important for youth and ICT to work in tandem. This will help stimulate the technology economy and also address career challenge problems of the youth.
“In many countries, youth is always considered a social sector – and hence clubbed with sports and culture sectors. But the reality is the youth need more opportunities and investment options. What they need is more access to technology so that they can fly.”
According to Nsengimana, strong business connections will help Rwanda make further strides in ICT.
“We are urging the students who are pursuing ICT courses in China to establish and nurture strong business connections. We feel that it is a waste for students to come back with just a degree after spending four years in China.
“They should go out, speak in Chinese and get to understand the essence of hard work and discipline.”
Nsengimana says his government will strive to attract more Chinese educational institutions to Rwanda by providing the necessary ground support. “We want more Chinese institutions to come here and set up research institutes.”
Rwanda is also an ideal business location because of its proximity with all the major continental destinations. ICT seems to be a good starting point for the regional hub strategy given that Rwanda has few natural resources and manufacturing facilities to offer.
“The most important thing is to do business itself and try to sort out how to make a facilitated and conducive business environment,” Nsengimana says. “ICT can’t be separated from other sectors. It has to be positioned in such a manner that it helps create a business-friendly environment.”
Although it lacks agricultural and manufacturing capabilities, Rwanda has an abundant supply of human resources and the required logistic knowledge to attract talent from all over the world, Nsengimana says.
Talent is still the main challenge for Rwanda’s further progress in ICT because supply still lags behind demand, he says.
In Kigali, the capital, efforts are being made to bridge the talent gap. The Rwandan government has got the US-based Carnegie Mellon University to establish and operate a master’s degree program in Kigali.
“Our endeavor is to create innovative programs that have the potential to have a profound, lasting impact and raise the talent bar,” says Nsengimana. “We anticipate more foreign educational institutions coming to Rwanda in the near future.”
“There is no quick fix for talent enhancement. It is a painstaking and long process that needs consistent and lasting investment.” According to the minister, there are also challenges in attracting investment.
“Although FDI has been increasing over the past 10 years, it is still not enough. What we are offering is an opportunity for investors to showcase intelligent technologies and skills so that they can prosper and thrive in a robust environment,” he says.
“What we need is an ecosystem in this field. You need different types of skills and exposure for young people. We need to build partnerships and connections with every part of the world.”
To better serve investors and neighboring countries, Rwanda has already started to boost the ICT industry, Nsengimana says.
“One of the steps is obviously by increasing access to devices, networks and broadband. The next step involves boosting skills and ensuring that people know how to use them. Yet another strategy is to focus more on applications, content and services. That’s why we are talking more about smart education, smart healthcare or smart agriculture. The last step is creating a better legal and regulatory environment so that ICT companies can flourish, compete and foster innovation.”
Nsengimana says ICT access has already improved in Rwanda, giving room for more optimism.