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Pioneering partnerships raise ICT bar

Interview - August 11, 2016

Advances in ICT are having an undeniable impact on Rwandans’ lives, particularly in creating opportunities for the country’s youth. In education, for example, it now has more university graduates annually than between 1963-1993 combined. Widespread access is key, and by 2017 95% of the country will have 4G LTE coverage. Youth & ICT Minister Jean Philbert Nsengimana explains Rwanda’s strategy to become an ICT hub and the enormous efforts under way backing the government’s aspirations and involving the private sector – domestic and international – as much as possible.



As the continent will eventually boast the world’s largest labor force, how is Rwanda building its people?

Our efforts on building people side have a double focus: access and quality. Rwanda has been scaling up access to 12-year basic education and technical & vocational education (TVET) to ensure that all school-going children and young people are enrolled. Changes in the past 10 years are really noticeable. Today, when you look at the number of students graduating within a year at university level, it is greater than the number of combined graduates between1963 to 1993. This is a proof of the progress made regarding population access to education.

On the quality front, a lot of investments have been made into education for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). We also partner with world-class universities such as Carnegie Mellon to raise the bar in terms of the quality of our graduates, who have to meet the same admission standards as those in the USA. ICT plays an important part in those efforts, especially in terms of providing access to the best available educational content and learning experience.


You just signed an MoU with a Chinese company that is part of the efforts to create an information superhighway in East Africa. Why is Rwanda so well positioned to be the ICT hub of Africa and what other plans do you have in the pipeline to achieve this ambitious goal?

Many African countries are working towards the goal of becoming an ICT hub. Rwanda’s strategy is based on four main aspects:

  • Thought leadership: the vision of President Paul Kagame of an Africa where ICT plays a central role in the continent’s socio-economic transformation has been embraced by the whole continent through the Smart Africa Initiative.
  • Connectivity: Rwanda aims at becoming the most-connected country on the continent. We have invested in the most dense fiber-optic national backbone on the continent, with more than 5,000km so far and continuing. By 2017, Rwanda will have a 4G LTE network covering 95% of the population.
  • Talent: both homegrown through such partnerships as Carnegie-Melon University, but also welcoming talent from across the globe, leveraging our best environment of doing business and our security, which are unparalleled in Africa.
  • Innovation and entrepreneurship: the best talent combined with a great business environment will inevitably lead to budding innovation, which will in turn need financing. We will soon be launching a $100 million Rwanda Innovation Fund that will be available to all tech companies operating from Rwanda but serving Africa and beyond.

My vision is of an Africa where each city, indeed each village, is an innovation hub, forming a constellation. I see Kigali as one of the most brilliant stars in that constellation but not the only one.


You have mentioned 4G rollout, done through a joint venture of the Government of Rwanda and Korea Telecom. This is a pioneering world program, with mind-blowing results. Do you think such a model could be exported elsewhere within the region?

A number of countries have taken interest in what has been done until now in Rwanda. Initially there was a lot of skepticism, now gone away as results are showing. We would be happy to share our experience with whoever might be interested. The private-public partnership strategy used, combined with building one single wholesale network, was the only way to ensure both nationwide rollout and affordability for our people. Generally, what telecom companies tend to do is to focus on urban areas while leaving rural areas behind. It took us 15 years to achieve national coverage of the 2G network. We did not want to wait as long for 4G.


John Rwangombwa, Governor of the National Bank of Rwanda, told us he was keen on seeing more banks and FDI coming into the financial sector. Is Rwanda open for more competition, do you want more operators?

Absolutely. The ICT sector has been growing at an average of 25% per annum over the last three years, compared to 7% for the rest of the economy. The sector boosts enormous investment opportunities. Kigali Innovation City for instance, is a new project that is inviting global technology multinationals that want to feel the pulse and innovate for the African continent, emerging markets and beyond. There is a limit to how much one can innovate for Africa based in Silicon Valley for instance.

Most of the existing problems in Africa – and therefore corresponding solutions – are usually not what the Western world think. Kigali Innovation City offers different platforms – talent development, business incubation, financing, etc. – towards the growth of a selected number of ICT clusters that have promise to transform lives in Africa. They include FinTech, BioTech, Smart Energy, Big Data, Internet of Things, Cybersecurity, Creative Industries, etc.


Positivo, a South American company, manufactures laptops here in Kigali. That is a great example of the “Made in Rwanda” brand. After laptops, what’s next?

Today, Africa is a billion-inhabitants market. Tomorrow, in 2030, the active population will reach a billion, which will have to be connected by broadband and smart devices. The Internet of Things is coming, and billions of these devices will be needed here. We either have to accept that these products will all be imported from out of Africa, or built here on African soil. We believe in that second option. The laptop factory that we have here is just the tip of the iceberg.


The Fourth Industrial Revolution will surely bring benefits, but as Klaus Schwab, Chairman of the World Economic Forum stated, the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society. How smooth is the dialogue in Rwanda?

Rwanda’s leadership style is inclusive and people-centered. We usually engage in broad consultations, whether for policy development or dealing with implementation challenges. At the highest national level, the President hosts an annual National Dialogue that brings together representatives of all layers in the leadership structure and all communities in the country to discuss key issues. Hosting WEF Africa earlier this year around the theme of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has initiated a dialogue that is continuing to this day in Rwanda within different circles.


Rwanda enjoys free Wi-Fi in some buses, has 4G squares… How did the population react to these innovative solutions and what tangible results have you seen towards digital literacy in the country?

The response has been great: people now expect to get excellent broadband Internet everywhere. We get a lot of pressure whenever that is not the case. We sometimes receive angry tweets, phone calls or even radio complaints when the Wi-Fi doesn’t work for whatever reason! We want to keep people’s expectations high, drive the demand side, and challenge the private sector to come up with solutions.


After the US Secretary for Commerce’s visit this January, the US announced Rwanda as a strategic ally to enhance trade in the region. What is your assessment on the diplomatic and commercial relations, and how could they be enhanced?

The US dominates the tech industry worldwide. We welcome the promise of a stronger partnership with Rwanda and Africa, especially in the ICT sector. There is a lot of room for win-win cooperation in this domain. US companies such as Google, Facebook and One Web are making a lot of investments in connecting the continent and Rwanda is benefiting a lot. Other US companies, such as Vanu Inc., are working with us to extend coverage to the last unconnected places in the most remote and hard-to-reach rural areas, usually seen as commercially not viable. We have signed a partnership with Zipline, a pioneering US company, to launch the first commercial delivery of emergency healthcare products by drones.

Moving forward, I would welcome similar vanguard innovation partnerships in education, healthcare, agriculture, the financial sector, creative industry, big data, IoT, cybersecurity, and smart cities and communities.


Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” What qualities does a good leader have?

A good leader has to have a great vision. The vision has to be shared and embraced by everyone. But one should keep in mind that vision remains the tip of the iceberg; the real hard work comes with mobilizing and motivating people for execution.


You have been Minister of Youth & ICT for five years now, having empowered thousands in Rwanda’s younger generation. How would you like to see Rwanda within the upcoming years in terms of youth empowerment?

I would like to see every single youth of this country productively employed or self-employed. I want them educated, connected and empowered. I want to see everyone contributing to this country’s promise of greater prosperity for future generations.