It is almost 23 years to the day since the Rwandan genocide, when an estimated 800,000 people were killed. For most people who think of Rwanda, images spring to mind of the brutality that took place over those 100 days in 1994.
These days, however, the Land of a Thousand Hills is quite different. Half the size of the state of Maryland, landlocked Rwanda is developing at an economic growth rate around 7 percent in 2016 under the presidency of Paul Kagame, and tech is at the heart of it.
A key plank of government policy is establishing the country as a tech hub. This makes complete sense. Rwanda has a relatively small population in Africa — around 12 million –and a lack of exportable produce. Kagame’s government is determined that it becomes an ICT services economy.
Part of this process has been putting in place the infrastructure of a tech hub. The government has invested over US$100 million in a 4,500-kilometer (2,796-mile) fiber network, and is rolling out 4G internet across the country. It has introduced a One Laptop Per Child school program.
Other schemes are more innovative still. Travelers in Kigali can pay for buses with pre-paid smart cards, while the Rwandan government has partnered U.S. startup Zipline to use drones to deliver blood and medicines to rural areas. In many areas, Rwanda is a shining example for the rest of Africa.
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The benefits have been evident. The World Economic Forum has ranked the country first in Africa for government success in ICT promotion, while it is also the highest ranked for internet affordability. The ICT sector has been rapidly growing, and is the primary target for foreign direct investment into the country.
This is especially noteworthy. Major multinationals such as Liquid Telecom have made investments in the country, and the government is working hard to ensure Rwanda is a positive place to do business. It is one of the highest ranked in Africa by the World Bank for ease of doing business. Meanwhile, foreign nationals can obtain an entrepreneur visa if they plan to start a tech business in Rwanda.
Vancouver native Barrett Nash, co-founder of transport app SafeMotos, was one such beneficiary of these new rules. He says he believes Rwanda is the best place in sub-Saharan Africa to launch an innovative ICT startup.
SafeMotos is a ride-hailing app that tracks drivers for safety in Kigali, where 80 percent of traffic accidents involve motorcycle taxis.
“Many people ask why we didn’t start SafeMotos in a larger market, like Lagos or Nairobi. In my opinion, this is an issue many startups suffer from, which is trying to conquer a market before they’ve mastered a product,” he said.
“I think a startup needs to grow into markets like Lagos and Nairobi, but getting the product right first is more important and I believe Rwanda has created a continent-leading platform for taking this first pivotal step.”
Nash cites things like the entrepreneur visa, the ability to register a company in 15 minutes, free spaces to work from, the exceptional rule of law and a government that is willing to engage with even the smallest startup as reasons for this.
“My belief is that Rwanda is the test kitchen of Africa, that this is a laboratory-like environment where the innovations that can be cooked up here can then be brought to other markets,” he said.
When Nash talks about workspace, he refers to places like the kLab and FabLab, housed at the government-backed ICT park. The likes of kLab are at the heart of the tech revolution promoted by the government, which this year plans to launch a US$100 million fund to invest in early-stage tech startups.
Aphrodice Mutangana is manager of kLab, which provides an open space for IT entrepreneurs to collaborate and innovate. Founded in 2012, it provides free space, free internet and free mentorship to its members, of which it currently has more than 1,400.
He says the government has played a key role in making Rwanda into an attractive place to launch tech businesses by putting strong institutions – lacking in so many African countries – in place.
“Many companies are launching in Rwanda because of many reasons. To open a company in Rwanda takes little time, is free of charge, and you do it online. We are a very secure country, and one that doesn’t tolerate corruption,” he said.
Rwanda still has some way to go, but all the signs are it has stolen a march on other countries in the region as it looks to become a tech hub. All of which marks a series of very important developments over the last 20 years.