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How Rwanda’s Capital Became an African Tech Leader

Kigali’s knowledge-based sharing economy is an example for other cities looking towards the future

In 1994, the African nation of Rwanda suffered one of the worst genocides in human history. Over the course of 100 days, its government slaughtered one-tenth of the country’s population and displaced more than 2 million people, turning them into refugees with little hope for the future. But even before the genocide, Rwanda was a country in crisis; the ongoing civil war had destroyed its already fragile economy, severely impoverished its citizens, and made it impossible to attract external investment.

Fast-forward to 2017, and this nation of 12 million people is undergoing a complete transformation. The key to this radical and fast-paced turnaround has been a form of sharing that many overlook when they examine the collaborative economy: knowledge sharing. Through an emphasis on developing long-term plans and investing in IT infrastructure and forward-looking skills, Kigali is thriving like never before — quickly becoming a leader in the knowledge-based sharing economy.

Today, the rest of Africa looks to Rwanda as a land of opportunity and a symbol of hope. Can other cities around the world follow the Rwandan model?

“There are a few fundamentals you have to understand. Firstly, our country is the same size as the U.S. state of Maryland, but our population is around 12 million people. Secondly, we have no natural resources — no oil or gold or anything else that countries benefit from,” explains Claudette Irere, director general at Rwanda’s Ministry of Youth and Information and Communication Technology. “This means the only way for us to move forward and to build our future is to empower people and make good use of technology. With this strategy, we are shifting our country from an agrarian economy to a knowledge-based economy.”

Rwanda is beginning to leapfrog developed countries in fundamental areas such as smart city infrastructure, vocational training, and strategic foreign investment. As of January this year, 4G/LTE networks cover more than 95 percent of the country, and a mix of public and private players are working together on a national roll-out of fiber-optic broadband. As its citizens and businesses get connected, Kigali is becoming an African hub for multinational tech companies, including Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

When President Kagame emerged as Rwanda’s de facto leader, he set out his ambition to transform the country from one of Africa’s poorest nations into a leading knowledge economy by 2020. Nobody anticipated the extraordinary growth that would follow. On its path to becoming a middle-income country, Rwanda has sought advice from China, Singapore, and Thailand. Economic and cultural ties with Asia are seen as crucial where transformation and future-building is quite different than Western countries. Most of them are leapfrogging the United States and European nations in terms of urban development.

Between 2001 and 2014, Rwanda achieved an annual growth rate of 9 percent and earned a global reputation as an attractive business destination. According to the World Bank’s 2018 Ease of Doing Business Index, Rwanda has risen above countries like Italy, Belgium, and Israel to become the 41st most business-friendly nation on earth. Rwanda was also the index’s biggest business reformer, with activities like starting up, registering property, paying taxes, and enforcing contracts all becoming increasingly easier in the country.

“Urbanization is becoming more of a challenge for things like traffic and public transportation. This creates a lot of opportunities for technology and innovation,” Irere says. “Working with global companies that lead in areas such as the internet of things (IoT) is helping us understand the problems we must solve before our city grows beyond our control.”

Over the coming years, Kigali will focus on developing state-of-the-art infrastructure to facilitate the operations of companies in the fields of biomed, fintech, big data, cybersecurity, and smart energy. Construction of a Kigali campus for Carnegie Mellon University — the U.S. institution making waves with its work in robotics and self-driving cars — was completed last July, and global data and telecommunications company Inmarsat has been developing ambitious IoT infrastructure across the city.

“For Inmarsat, [our work in Kigali] demonstrates how technology can unlock the smart city of the future and offers a blueprint that can be adopted across African cities,” says Alastair Bovim, the company’s vice president for smart cities. “Some of the early use cases of our network have been smart parking, air quality sensors on buildings, and a farming initiative designed to increase crop yield and better manage water resources.”

But the real strength of the project is in providing businesses, entrepreneurs, and students with the necessary infrastructure to develop and deploy their own IoT applications. Investments in IoT infrastructure across Africa and the Middle East are projected to reach $7.8 billion by the end of 2017, and the money goes a lot further when the projects are spearheaded by local initiatives. This technical infrastructure is crucial to Kigali’s aims of empowering and inspiring citizens to innovate, creating fresh opportunities — especially for young people — and sharing knowledge with other African nations.

One local company that’s making the most of Kigali’s digital infrastructure is ride-hailing app SafeMotos, founded by a Canadian entrepreneur who fell in love with the city. Road traffic collisions are a significant problem in Rwanda and its neighboring countries, with 40 percent more road deaths occurring per 100,000 people than in low- and middle-income nations in any other part of the world. To combat this problem, SafeMotos provides drivers with smartphones and pulls data from an app to measure their performance on trips. Customers are connected only with drivers who meet a certain safety threshold — an algorithmic score of at least 90 out of 100.

Barrett Nash, co-founder of SafeMotos, found it both easy and attractive to launch a technology company in Rwanda. “I get to live here on an ICT residency, was able to incorporate my company within 24 hours, and had my first office space in a government-sponsored tech lab,” Nash explains. “There’s a real feeling of dynamism here. Even though people are poor, they’re infectiously optimistic about the future. For me, Rwanda is the test kitchen of Africa; it’s a laboratory-like environment that reduces friction points so that startups can learn faster.”

On May 7, 2018, Kigali will celebrate by hosting this year’s TransformAfrica Summit, a prestigious ICT conference that has a reputation for spurring policy and regulatory action and facilitating public-private deals across the continent. The 2018 edition focuses on Africa’s single digital market—the concept of uplifting and accelerating digital and tech activities across all of Africa through knowledge sharing and collaboration, spearheaded by the city of Kigali and President Kagame.

Kigali is currently home to 1.22 million people, and its population is expected to triple by 2040. As the city continues to problem-solve and actively export its learnings to neighboring countries, smart infrastructure combined with fearless creativity is enabling people to power the country’s economic future and strive for great things. For other cities looking to the future, Kigali’s example shows that focusing on knowledge can offer just as many benefits as natural resources in making economies boom.

This story is part of the series “Building a City,” examining the opportunities and challenges of the sharing economy in different cities. Read the previous installment here:

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