Written by Wesley Cate on May 20, 2015
Rwanda recently won the Global Telecom Business Innovation Award for its innovative business model in providing internet access to the country through a public private partnership.
South Korea’s largest telecommunications provider, Korea Telecoms, partnered with the Government of Rwanda to launch a 4G network in the country. Korea Telecoms provided expertise and financing while the Rwandan government laid the 3,000 kilometer fiber optic cable.
The resulting Olleh Rwanda Networks sells 4G-access wholesale to Rwanda’s 10 internet service providers. Rolled out in November 2014, the network is expected to cover 95 percent of the population by 2017, with current internet penetration standing at about 28 percent, according to the New Times.
The improved internet access is part of Rwanda’s ambitious vision to become a middle-income country by the year 2020 with ICT as one of the core pillars of that vision. Rwanda’s mountainous and landlocked geography makes it difficult for heavier industries to thrive due to high transport costs, but Rwanda’s plan to develop into a knowledge economy through ICT will allow the country to create a competitive advantage not reliant on geography.
The strategy seems to be working.
Along with the country’s high GDP growth rates over the last ten years, Rwanda has seen significant progress in its ICT sector. According to the UN’s AfricaRenewal Magazine, “In 2002, there were just two internet providers with 25,000 users. Today there are approximately 1.2 million internet users in a country of 12 million.” The article continued, “Rwanda registered one of the highest internet user growth rates in Africa, 8900%, compared with the continent’s 2450%.”
Aside from the growth in the number of users, the quality of the network has improved as well. Slate reports, “[Rwanda] also has decent internet access, especially in comparison with other African countries.” Using the Guardian’s interactive internet comparison tool, Slate found that it only takes about five seconds to download a 5MB photo in Rwanda, compared with the 10 second in South Africa.
The increased speed and access to the internet has allowed Kigali’s tech community to collaborate and grow. For instance, KLab (Knowledge Lab) is a collaborative work space co-founded by a Carnegie Mellon University—Rwanda professor. The space hosts around 70-100 entrepreneurs each day. Slate reports, “The center also has 21 experienced mentors available to nurture nascent ideas and offer business advice for new companies attempting to break into the industry.”
Think is business incubator launched by Tigo. The incubator currently houses two tech start-ups – Cribpark (Nigeria) and TorQue (Rwanda)—and provides their entrepreneurs with mentors, training and seed capital.
Strides in the country’s ICT infrastructure, an aggressive national electrification effort, and an energetic community of tech entrepreneurs provide Rwanda’s SMEs with opportunities to innovate and advance in Africa’s emerging knowledge economy.