The Notable Story of Rwanda’s Digital Infrastructure

Rwanda’s smart decision to build its country around accessibility to the Internet will pay off in the future. The direct impact on its people is evident, and Rwanda has used Digital Infrastructure as a key to open up a financial sector.

When reading about Sub-Saharan Africa, one often sees the pattern of characteristics: impoverished people being ruled by a wealthy tyrant who’s been in power longer than most of the people who read this; preventable humanitarian crises that often cost thousands of lives; and a stagnant economy in which natural resources (oil or rare earths) are extracted by foreign companies without leaving any educational or monetary value behind.

However, there is a country that stands as the exception to the rule. Rwanda has, in the past two decades, emerged as an “African Success Story”. The economy is booming, the people are receiving adequate health care and education. In short, Rwanda has managed to re-brand itself as a business country. But its rise to being one of the textbook examples of successful economic development is incomplete without telling the story of Rwanda’s bet on digitising its largely rural territory.

Already in 2009, authorities lay a fiber optic broadband cable that connected Rwanda with the Undersea Cable System at Mombasa and Dar es Salaam. Central to that decision was the realization that ICT is not only a market in itself, but also as a tool to reform other markets, and serves as a key to opening countless other markets. Providing and expanding high-speed internet has been carefully planned by the government.

By nature, the telecommunications market is fast-changing — advances in technology, combined with ever cheaper hardware from China have proven that telecommunications is a fast paced market with little development-to-implementation time. The development from 3G to 4G to LTE mobile internet is just one example of this. The more impressive it was that in 1998, the Rwandan ministry for Youth and ICT (note that Rwanda has identified the relation between Youth and ICT and unified them under one ministry) sold only one telecommunications license to Rwandatel. Conditions of the license included equal coverage across the entirety of Rwanda, and keeping up with technological developments whilst maintaining a fair, accessible price level for Rwandan customers.

The license had several invaluable effects: by 2011, all 30 provinces of Rwanda were connected to Fiber Optic Broadband — today, Rwanda has the fastest internet of the continent; additionally, there was no detrimental race-to-the-bottom for mobile operators that entered the market after the 10-year license expired. Instead, once the license did expire, Tigo and MTN were facing the monopolist Rwandatel, and could mobilize new users through diversity in the market. This meant that telecommunication and internet was profitable for the provider, accessible to the consumer, and beneficial for business development for the government.

Funnily enough, it needs to be said here that heavy regulations made the telecommunications sector in Rwanda so profitable, not the open-business mentality that western countries attempt to force upon developing countries through aid money. Once again, this is a point of contention where President Paul Kagame decided to exercise government control over the market, rather than following advice of western countries that urged him to take a capitalist liberal approach.

“In Rwanda we have decided to look at ICT as a utility — like water, like electricity”

The notable story of ICT in Rwanda continued when in 2014 4G technology was unrolled in a US$140 million deal with Korea Telecom, beating its bigger neighbor Kenya to being the first EAC country to offer 4G technology. And indeed, Rwanda’s digitisation does not end there. Together with Tanzania, Rwanda switched off entirely its analogue television on June 17th, 2015. As part of the country’s approach to education, it has committed to the one-laptop-per-child initiative, aiming to provide one simple, low-cost laptop for each child as an educational means.

Kagame says that “In Rwanda we have decided to look at ICT as a utility — like water, like electricity”. Rwanda’s financial sector in particular has benefitted from the country’s stance on IT, more specifically the mobile banking sector. Only 14% of Rwandans have access to formal banking. However, with mobile coverage across the country, and mobile internet penetrating ever further into the Rwandan hills, mobile banking has proven an invaluable substitute for the brick-and-mortar bank for all Rwandans that find themselves excluded from the formal banking sector.

More importantly, it has connected Rwanda with the rest of the world, allowing its citizens to use the internet to look beyond the country’s borders, and making the country accessible to outside companies. It has had its effect on banking, but also on health care. Currently, Rwanda’s government is piloting a program with American company Zipline, to make it the first country worldwide to have universal drone access for the delivery of medical supplies, blood and coagulants.

As long as the economy continues growing, the infrastructure continues improving and corruption and bribery continue being fought, Paul Kagame has little to fear, despite his prolonged seat at the helm of the country. Whether the Rwandan project is able to maintain its pace is difficult to predict, and not entirely in the country’s own hands. External threats, such as the chronically unstable situation in neighbouring country Burundi, certainly pose threats. But as Western discussions often center around technology, disruption and internet-based banking, Rwanda has put themselves out there to be the continent’s best hope to catch on to the movement first.