By Chrisostom Mwairumba
iHub Research’s African Tech Innovation Index team recently visited the land of a thousand hills - as it is often referred to. The purpose of the visit was to conduct a fieldwork study on Tech innovation in the country. The following article highlights Rwanda’s Tech Innovation landscape as observed by a member of the team.
Rwanda like Kenya subscribes to the league of nations whose mantra is to deploy ICT as one of the key drivers of socio-economic development and has made commendable progress towards placing ICT at the centre of its socio-economic, political and academic endeavours and at the same time inching closer to fully realising her ICT strategic plan. Even though Kenya continues to set the agenda and pace for ICT within the East African region comprising of Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda; Rwanda is catching up and it wouldn’t be wishful thinking to imagine that the gap between the two nations will someday narrow, close up or open up in Rwanda’s favour.
The Rwandan landscape and particularly the government oozes with visible commitment geared towards embracing and nurturing ICT not only for reasons of creating a strategic advantage and economic development but also for reasons of intellectual empowerment. Comparing Rwanda to Kenya with respect to Tech Innovation and its consumption and creation might appear somewhat as a mismatch for obvious reasons. Supporting factors such as population and country size disparity, level of economic development/strength, institutional capacity and geographical location are significantly tilted in favour of Kenya. Rwanda however on the other hand is not deficient all through the spectrum of enabling factors as it has a few supporting factors in her favour, such factors are good governance, security, organizational efficiency and favourable rankings in different indices such as transparency international’s corruption index and world bank’s ease of doing business index. What vividly comes out of the comparison of the ICT and Innovation landscapes between Kenya and Rwanda is the fact that Rwanda is gaining faster in her weak but correctable aspects against Kenya (areas that Rwanda falls behind Kenya in and those that allow human intervention such as institutional capacity) than Kenya is gaining in her weak but correctable aspects against Rwanda, this perhaps as a result of better strategies, policies and their execution.
Kenya might be ahead of Rwanda on a general scale with regard to ICT but it would be suicidal for Kenya to sit and celebrate in that fact, that is if one can consider technological (ICT) capability/achievement as a competitive undertaking, which it indeed is owing to its huge potential for economic development. The basis of this observation springs from the fact that looking at some of the key indicators and determinants of a country’s readiness or capability for technological achievement such as ICT infrastructure, skilled human capital, research and training, policy and government participation; Rwanda is on a growth trajectory and at a correct degree capable of producing high net output.
On a recent visit to Rwanda, we had the privilege of visiting kLab during our visit to Rwanda and were able to interact with various cadres of “tenants” who work from within kLab. The tenants comprise of individuals with keen interest in ICT naturally due to their IT backgrounds with ranging experience and skill level from within and outside of Rwanda. Interacting with these people - the passion and desire for success in ICT through innovative technology products is palpable. This is clearly manifest in the fact that over 90% of those that I interacted with at kLab in the course of our research are involved in IT start-up ventures that have produced fairly innovative software applications which range in areas of application from ecommerce platforms for use in commercial enterprises, schools record management systems, eAgriculture systems for use by farmers in remote locations in Rwanda and many more. One thing I noticed with a lot of satisfaction was the direct government involvement in ICT, kLab, which is the premier innovation lab in Rwanda for instance; is owned by the government. Investment in training which is an ICT innovation enabler is another manifestation. The Rwandan government sponsors students in top global and regional universities including the University of Nairobi.
The predominant concern among all the budding ICT innovators in Rwanda is poor monetary reward for their innovations for the few that have been successful in having their products adopted for use by the market while for a majority their innovations never go beyond the confines of their laptop hard drives and this has created considerable frustration among the lot with the thought of abandoning ICT altogether an ever present option to most who cannot meet their personal financial obligations. This is something that policy makers in Rwanda need to address urgently to avoid eroding the impressive gains the country has achieved so far.
At the local level the government has also actively participated in building capacity for higher education through building and equipping institutions of higher learning as well as giving charters to reputable foreign universities such as Carnegie Mellon University which has only one campus in Africa, located in Rwanda. For an institution that follows a strict assessment criterion for countries that they establish campuses in, there must have been something compelling in Rwanda, I am convinced whatever the motivation, it was not for monetary gain as seems to be the case with most other institutions who focus on potential high income areas in choosing locations for setting up campuses.
The very fact that one can make a comparison I believe is evidence of the vibrancy of ICT in both countries, don’t you agree?