ILLUSION 4: Rwanda towards a knowledge-based economy
by David Himbara
President Paul Kagame personally launched the “the National Information Communication Infrastructure (NICI) Plan” in 2000, which aimed to transform Rwanda into a knowledge based-economy by the year 2020. Phase 1 of NICI (2000-2005) was to create the enabling environment for building a knowledge economy; Phase 2 (2006-2011) was to build the required IT infrastructure and human capital base; in Phase 3 (2012-2016) IT-based services and products would begin to enter the global market place; Phase 4 (2016-2020) would see Rwanda cruising towards becoming a knowledge-based economy with a middle-income status of US$900 GDP per capita – a figure later increased to US$1,200 GDP per capita.
Our naïve guest nearing her hotel in downtown Kigali had learnt with great admiration of President Kagame’s tireless efforts in transforming Rwanda into a knowledge-based economy. She has over the years followed with great interest the extensive coverage the Rwandan president receives in global media, not least about the many deserving awards he regularly wins for his remarkable efforts. Now to be in Kigali, in the land of a great African IT head of state was so exciting.
She remembered especially how a leading American journal, Fortune, described the Rwandan President when back in 2007 he had lunch with senior Google executives including CEO Eric Schmidt at the company’s campus in Mountain View in California. That is when the Internet giant announced its plans to make available to Rwanda free of charge its Google Apps-web-based applications – something that would change the face of Rwanda in such critical areas as training staff server-maintenance, in buying PC-based software and in developing and maintaining e-mail systems. Who indeed would not be impressed that a country generally known for violence had already by 2007 achieved such an amazing feat – not only computers but also broadband connections previously unheard of in this part of the world.
Unknown to the gullible visitor, most of this was propaganda hot air. In fact Google never set foot in Rwanda – it went to neighboring Kenya instead. For one thing, a Google server/station would probably need some 50 megawatts of electricity which would have plunged Rwanda into darkness as that was the equivalent to total installed power in the country at the time. Worse still, there were hardly any broadband connections in 2007 – In fact, while President Kagame was having a photo opportunity with Google executives, behind the scenes he was busy sacking Terracom, which was supposedly building “the fastest communications backbone in Africa.”
Here is the Rwandan IT reality and the key stages/outcomes in the implementation of President Kagame’s infamous NICI since he launched it 13 years ago.
- 2000 – NICI Plan launched; Rwanda Information Technology Authority (RITA) later becomes the implementing agency, located directly in President Kagame’s office;
- 2003 – New NICI Plan driver installed; this is Sam Nkusi, minister of communications supported by Sem Ochuodho as head of RITA – Nkusi is sacked in 2004;
- 2004 – Preparations for building IT infrastructure begin; Greg Wyler buys Rwandatel with the goal of using it as a backbone to create Africa’s fastest broadband connections, including the infrastructure on the top of Mt Kalisimbi – Greg Wyler is sacked in 2007 when he tries to team up with ‘the father of telecommunications in Africa’ Miko Rwayitare;
- 2004 – New NICI Plan driver installed; this is Albert Butare, the new minister in charge of communications – RITA’s Ochuodho sacked in 2006;
- 2006 – Rwanda’s IT Park for creating IT entrepreneurs, start-ups, IT-bases services and products is established at Telecom House supervised by RITA and Minister in-charge of communications;
- 2006 – President Paul Kagame begins his global campaign to drum support for his transformation agenda towards knowledge-based economy – wins first award for best head of state in Africa in support of ICT – again in 2007 and after; many awards follow;
- 2007 – New NICI Plan driver installed as Minister Butare is purged of the communications portfolio for ‘poor performance’ – Romain Murenzi becomes the Minister of IT in Office of the President and David Kanamugire as his Permanent Secretary; Nkubito Bakuramutsa becomes head of RITA;
- 2007 – Rwandatel, after being re-nationalized after the Greg Wyler disaster, is now sold to the Libyans. The determining fact is not IT but to make more cash for building IT infrastructure;
- 2007 – Korea Telcom begins to build a 2,300 kilometer fiber-optic cable and Kigali Wireless Broadband;
- 2009 – New NICI Plan driver installed; Romain Murenzi crashes out and resigns – Ignace Gatare becomes the Minister of IT in Office of the President, with David Kanamugire his PS;
- 2009 – RITA scrapped as a free standing agency; it is incorporated into the Rwanda Development Board – Nkubito Bakuramutsa sacked and replaced by Patrick Nyirishema;
- 2011 – The Kagame government announces that it is looking for a private operator to manage the completed IT infrastructure worthy over US$100million;
- 2011 – Rwandatel collapses and is liquidated to pay back debts worth US$89 million;
- 2012 – Rwandatel’s masks are purchased by Airtel;
- 2012 – The post of Minister in the Office of the President in-charge of IT is scrapped – Ignace Gatare reduced from minister to Director General of Science and Technology Commission; strangely, IT is at the same time transferred to Ministry of Youth, and Information, Communication and Technology headed by Minister Jean Philbert Nsengimana;
- 2013 – Remains of Rwandatel , namely its copper wire and fibre as well as customer base are purchased by Liquid Telcom, whose representative in Rwanda is no other than Sam Nkusi;
- 2013 – RDB announces that the ICT Park at Telecom House “was really a small level pilot” and that the real ICT city will soon be built at the Kigali Special Economic Zone.
According to NICI plan, Rwanda should right now be exporting IT-based services and products. The then RITA’s head, Sem Ochuodho had claimed in 2006 that “By the time the NICI program concludes, we hope to be able to export software and systems worth $50-100 million every year.”
ILLUSION 4: Rwanda, towards a knowledge-based economy
What sort of export software, systems, or outsourced work then is presently being performed in Rwanda after 13 years of implementing President Kagame’s NICI Plan? How many IT entrepreneurs or start-ups have emerged and distinguished themselves in the domestic or foreign markets? Zero! Zilch! Nothing beyond your routine sim-card selling and internet-surfing services led by RPF’s own MTN Rwanda which continues to thrive, while Rwandatel was sold, re-owned and sold again to provide funds for implementing the juvenile NICI Plan.
Now folks, if you wish to cry for your country, read what the current Rwandan officials in charge of IT are telling you with regards to where the 13 years of NICI Plan have taken Rwanda.
What you read on the RDB website confirms one’s worst fears of who is running Rwanda.
Here are the highlights of what they are saying:
- “Information and Communication Technology is a central engine to driving Rwanda’s transformation to a knowledge based economy”;
- Rwanda is “acknowledged by allocating a budget to ICT – as a percentage of its GDP – that is at par with OECD countries.”
- “Rwanda continues to be one of the fastest growing African countries in ICT;”
- Rwanda’s ICT Competitive advantage includes “cheap labor compared to other countries in the Region”, “low levels of corruption – Zero tolerance” and “strong & visionary leadership;”
- Total IT infrastructure investment so far is “US$ 150million.”
Surely assure me that these are not April Fools’ Day sick jokes. How can IT possibly be “the central engine” in the current IT shambles in Rwanda? How can “cheap labour” be a competitive advantage in IT? What has “strong” leadership or “zero tolerance for corruption” have to do with IT? And with a mere US$150million IT infrastructure assets, how can Rwanda possibly belong to the same league as OECD countries – do the people running RDB even understand the term ‘OECD’? I doubt President Kagame’s planners – whom he changes like underwear – have even visited their own East African neighborhood, let alone OECD countries. Let them visit Kenya which is currently building ‘Silicon Savannah’ as a regional hub for the next generation of digital industry leaders.
Nairobi is already a hub in its own right – hosting the biggest brands in the world of technology, including Google, Intel, and Microsoft and doing thriving business in millions of dollars. These global players join local actors, not least Safaricom and its innovative invention of M-Pesa to take advantage of the existing hi-tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists ready to become part of Konza Technology City, soon to be the home of Silicon Savannah some 60 outside Nairobi. And while Kagame’s Rwanda talks of US$150million IT development, Konza will swallow no less than US$14.5 billion-worth of infrastructure.
Perhaps the biggest insult to Rwandans by Kagame officials is the lie that the IT Park at Telecom House implemented since 2006 “was really a small level pilot” and that the real thing is about to happen in the Kigali Special Economic Zone.”
Where in the world did you ever hear of a seven-year IT pilot project “which would give us an idea of how an ICT city would be”? The arrogant infant abusing our intelligence by feeding us such trash is not aware that great IT companies started in garages, including Amazon, Apple, and Hewlett-Packard. Somebody tell this would-be public servant that it is the brainpower and innovation, stupid – not space!
Dr David Himbara was the Principal Private Secretary to President Paul Kagame in 2000-2002 and 2009. He was the founding chairperson of the Strategy and Policy Unit (SPU), the founding chairperson of Rwanda Development Board (RDB) and the founding chairperson of the Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (IPAR). A Rwandan-Canadian, David Himbara is an independent reform strategist and an Adjunct Professor at the University of the Witswaterand, South Africa which he has been associated with on-and-off since 1994. Himbara left Rwanda and returned to South Africa in January 2010.
ILLUSION 1: Rwanda is an environmental haven
ILLUSION 2: Rwandans are now reconciled
ILLUSION 3: Rwanda is a role model in empowering women
ILLUSION 5: Rwanda is zero-tolerant for corruption