Twenty-three years on from the genocide in Rwanda, its capital city Kigali is pursuing a large-scale digital strategy.

Smart Kigali trying to give a brighter future to Rwanda

The Rwandan capital Kigali: from world genocide capital to ‘smart’ city? This metamorphosis might surprise many. However, 23 long years have passed since the massacres of ethnic Tutsi people and the country’s capital has been on course to become ‘intelligent’ ever since the launch of the ‘Smart Kigali’ project in 2013. The economy of a – mainly agricultural – country left in shreds is now vying to become a cutting-edge service-based economy and this new ‘African Switzerland’ or ‘Singapore of Central Africa’, as it is variously called, has regained some of its economic vigour. Even better, Kigali has regained an atmosphere of social peace, seemingly far from the eruptions of racial hatred seen in past decades. At the Next Einstein Forum 2016 – the new Global Forum for Science in Africa, which took place in Dakar, Senegal last year – Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame stated clearly that the key challenge for Rwanda was to be able to “keep the peace. This is why Africa must not let the wave of technological progress pass it by.” So have Rwanda’s policies, based on developing the use of digital technology, helped the country to rise from the ashes and build a sustainable peace? After all, smart cities are supposed to be able to create all the conditions for social cohesion, aren’t they? According to Marcello Schermer, Managing Director of Seedstars World, this is practically the definition of ‘smart city’. “A ‘smart city’ is basically a city which, through the use of ICT [information and communication technology], becomes a better city, one that is for sure more efficient but also more tranquil,” he argues.

Kigali: signs of economic, demographic and digital renaissance

How many people would be able to point out Rwanda and its capital city Kigali on a map? Very few. Nevertheless, the place that experienced horrific genocide is now seeing a renaissance. With twelve million inhabitants, a number that is set to triple by 2040, the country is emerging from its loss of close to a million people. Over the fourteen years from 2001 to 2015, annual GDP growth averaged just under 8% and the economy grew by slightly under 6% in 2016. Meanwhile, on the social cohesion front, Article 54 of the new 2003 constitution states that “political organisations are prohibited from basing themselves on race, ethnic group, tribe, clan, region, sex, religion or any other division which may give rise to discrimination”. The constitution condemns the Rwandan genocide, expresses hope for reconciliation and prosperity, but also provides criminal penalties for ‘denial’ of the genocide. Today Kigali displays a very modern political face: Rwanda is one of the few countries where a large percentage of parliamentary seats are occupied by women.

The roots of this economic, demographic and social revival are to be found partly in the government’s ambitious policy of promoting digital technology. Above all there has been a major increase in awareness of Rwanda’s need to diversify an economy based largely on raw materials, which is thus totally dependent on commodity market prices. The main goal of Rwanda’s ‘Vision 2020’, determinedly driven by the Rwandan President, is to transform an agricultural economy into an information and knowledge-based economy by 2020. So the vision is as much about people as the economy. And the last ten years have seen the Internet, smartphones and computers become part of the daily lives of Rwandans, attaining a market penetration rate of around 40%. In Rwanda, the mobile phone reigns supreme, having achieved a market penetration rate of 60% in just five years. The device is an enabler for many day-to-day services such as carrying out bank transactions and paying electricity bills.

The Internet has also been rolled out across the capital. The Mayor of Kigali says that Rwanda, “with 500 kilometers of fibre optic cable, has connected every corner of every road in the capital and every business with a building that can accommodate more than 199 people are required by law to hook it up to the Internet.” This is how the Smart Kigali programme launched in 2013 has made WiFi available free of charge in public places such as shopping centres, bus stations, airports, public transport, hotels and restaurants. At the same time, cyber-cafés are springing up all over the capital. This spread of network coverage has stimulated the imagination of entrepreneurs and led to the creation of new services such as SafeMotos – a new motorcycle-based ‘Uber’-type service, which has 5,000 regular users. And the innovations are not likely to stop there. Says Marcello Schermer: “In Rwanda the FinTech sector is just starting out and banks are getting increasingly interested. And there’s lots more to come. Kigali is starting to talk Blockchain, Bitcoin and Machine Learning.”

Digital technology serving education

The spread of digital technology in Kigali could not have achieved the success it has if the city authorities had not helped residents to change their ways. Training them to use Kigali’s new technologies as part of the process of educating the heirs of the genocide is a state priority. Kigali’s basic formula is to weave education together with the use of ICTs and the teaching in Rwandan schools is increasingly based on digital tools. In 2008, the government began to distribute huge amounts of computer equipment to schools, through the ’One Laptop per Child’ programme, which enables children to start using computer tools in primary school. Since 2010, 200,000 computers have been delivered to schools in Rwanda. Mobile devices have also arrived in the classroom: what is known in Africa as ‘m-education’.

Meanwhile, computing has become the spearhead of higher education. The Kepler university campus in Kigali has adopted the ‘inverted’ or ‘flipped classroom’. In the evenings students often study what are known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) through videos mostly obtained from US, European or Australian universities. Then the following day at the university, an assistant lecturer will go over the content with them in class. Last but not least, a ‘fablab’ by the name of Makery opened its doors recently in Kigali in partnership with MIT. Drawing together a mix of students, entrepreneurs and startup experts, Makery seeks to create digital innovation spaces where people are encouraged to ‘have a go’, based on a teaching method currently very much in fashion – learning by doing.

Cross-border digital tech: a pan-African approach

However, Rwanda is looking to take digital technology to a whole new level, using it as a driver for international policy. The government has been the driving force behind the Smart Africa Alliance, making affordable access to broadband and use of ICT an instrument of the continent’s quest for peace and for stimulating the economy by fostering the sharing of wealth among neighbouring countries. ‘Internal peace, external peace’ seems to be the watchword here.

The Alliance was created at the Transform Africa Summit held in Kigali in October 2013. The initiative emerged out of a general awareness that sub-Saharan Africa needs to reduce the digital divide which handicaps the region on the international scene. Paul Kagame argues that ICTs “have the power to level the world’s playing field and free up human capital to fully exploit its potential.” At the Summit, seven countries got round a table and undertook to “work to accelerate socio-economic development through the use of ICTs” and to promote universal access to the Internet, as well as fostering sustainable development. Today seventeen countries – Rwanda, Uganda, Gabon, South Sudan, Kenya, Senegal, Mali, Chad, Angola, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Egypt, Benin, Togo and Niger – are members of the Alliance and a number of private sector companies such as IntelEricsson and Huawei have also joined. In the longer term, this digital technology-focused Alliance is also planning to create a single digital market, which would involve harmonising connection charges, abolishing roaming fees, and making joint investments in infrastructure. Kenya, Rwanda, and South Sudan have already done so; they use a common electronic chip to facilitate communications. Last but not least, the Alliance is focusing on education. In the short term, 1,000 schools in the region, the nerve centres of peace, will be connected to the Internet.

“Let’s be clear that this is not the only explanation, but I do think that technology has played a part in the post-genocide era in Rwanda. It has helped to spread cultural and community efforts to live together in harmony and has been one of the tools helping to build a new peaceful society,” points out Marcello Schermer.

So is Kigali the new Silicon Valley of sub-Saharan Africa? Perhaps not quite, given that half of the country’s budget depends on humanitarian aid, that 40% of Rwandans still live below the poverty line, that the economy is still mainly based on agriculture and that illiteracy remains a major weakness. Schermer stresses: “Kigali is on the right path. What will help is that the government is pursuing determined pro-active policies.” At all events, Africa is genuinely becoming the continent for digital experimentation.

By Laura Frémy
Journalist