The Next Silicon Valley

High-Speed Recovery

Twenty years after the genocide, Rwanda looks to a high-tech future.

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame listens to deliberations during the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) in the Ugandan capital of Kampala August 8, 2012.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame is known as the “Digital President.”

Photo by Edward Echwalu/Reuters

Almost 20 years have passed since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when politicians, doctors, miners, merchants, and farmers killed about 800,000 of their fellow politicians, doctors, miners, merchants, and farmers in the East African nation of just 12 million. To this day, the 100-day horror remains one of the most appallingly efficient cases of systematic murder in modern history, and Rwanda, at least in the eyes of the West, remains synonymous with the chaos of its not-too-distant past.

Now, however, Rwanda is gaining attention for something else. Under President Paul Kagame—who put an end to the genocide with his then-rebel group the Rwandan Patriotic Front when the world hesitated to intervene—the country’s GDP has grown by an average of just over 8 percent every year since 2001, raising a million people out of poverty. The World Bank ranked Rwanda as the second-most business-friendly place on the continent (32nd globally), behind the island nation of Mauritius; Transparency International named it the least corrupt state in the region (49th globally); and the advocacy organization ONE, co-founded by Bono, placed it in the lead alongside Mali as the closest to fulfilling the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, which cover everything from increasing education to reducing poverty to expanding health care. And when it comes to gender equality, at 64 percent, Rwanda currently has the highest proportion of female lower-house MPs in the world.

Yet all these achievements appear humble in comparison with the country’s long-term aims. The government’s mission statement, Rwanda Vision 2020, lays out a path for the nation to reach middle-income status by skipping an industrialization period altogether, fostering an economy based instead on communications and information technology.

This might not sound so audacious, except that Rwanda’s chief activity is subsistence agriculture, over 40 percent of the population still lives in poverty, and only one in two Rwandans was able to read and write as of 2000. Plus, without having undergone substantial industrialization, the nation still lacks much-needed infrastructure: Only 16 percent of homes in Rwanda have electricity, which is hardly a promising number for a society gambling on a high-tech future.

But Rwandans do have access to mobile phones—or about 60 percent of them do, up from 6 percent in 2006. They also have decent Internet access, especially in comparison with other African countries: According to the Guardian’s recent interactive tool that contrasts Internet speeds from around the world, downloading a 5MB photo in Rwanda takes about five seconds, compared with nearly 10 seconds in South Africa. (In the U.S., it takes just short of two seconds.) In September officials launched free wireless hot spots throughout the capital of Kigali. And last summer Rwanda signed a deal with KT Corp., South Korea’s largest telecommunications provider, to bring a 4G LTE broadband network to 95 percent of the Rwandan population within three years. And Visa recently gave the nation a strong stamp of approval by choosing it for the rollout of a pioneering mobile-payment system meant to replace cash and better connect residents in rural areas who traditionally haven’t interacted with financial services.

On the front lines of Rwanda’s Vision 2020, however, stands kLab. Located in Kigali, kLab—short for “knowledge Lab”—is a unique collaborative space where young tech entrepreneurs and engineers can access free Wi-Fi, attend workshops, participate in hackathons, or simply swap coding tips while hovering over a game of foosball, as Katie Collins wrote in Wired in October. 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.

At the moment, kLab hosts 85 tenants and 11 startups, many of which already have products on the market. Foyo, for example, created an app that sends users daily diet and health information, while TorQue is known for its cloud-based inventory system geared toward small-to-medium-size businesses. One of kLab’s most successful companies is GiraICT, which makes tablets and smartphones by the likes of HP and Samsung affordable to lower-income customers through a monthly payment system. Since launching, GiraICT has also opened branches in Burundi and Ghana.

Another development that fills kLab’s future with promise is its alliance with Carnegie Mellon University’s relatively new research-based campus, located just one floor below. “You say, ‘I have entrepreneurs here, I have a world-class university, I have IT businesses, and I have IT infrastructure’—that looks to me like a mini–Silicon Valley,” said Michael Bezy, associate director of Carnegie Mellon University–Rwanda, at the official opening of kLab in October. “The only thing we are missing are venture capitalists.”

Since an estimated 60 percent of Rwanda’s population is under the age of 25, government officials have heavily supported the One Laptop per Child initiative, a partnership between two U.S.-based nonprofit organizations that aims to put low-cost computers in the hands of the world’s poorest youth. So far OLPC has distributed more than 200,000 laptops to more than 400 schools across Rwanda, placing the country third in the world, behind Peru and Uruguay, in terms of total units provided.

Aptly for a small country aiming to become a beacon of technology, the Twitter-friendly Kagame is often dubbed the “Digital President.” But there are reasons to doubt that Rwanda is stable enough to reach its goals. For one, the nation has the highest level of inequality in the region, with the richest 10 percent earning 3.2 times the income of the poorest 40 percent in 2011, according to a report from the Society for International Development. And Kagame’s style is authoritarian, holding elections without the presence of an opposing party and justifying limits on a free press by arguing that words could rekindle the genocidal flame. In the past, advocacy group Human Rights Watch and the United Nations have accused Rwanda of backing the now-defunct armed rebel group M23, which were formerly situated in the neighboring and much-troubled Democratic Republic of Congo. Although Rwandan officials have consistently denied the claims, Western nations such as the U.K. and U.S. have a history of reacting by suspending foreign aid—aid that Kagame’s government relies on to cover 40 percent of its annual budget. (In 1995 Rwanda reportedly depended on foreign aid to cover 100 percent of its budget.)

Ultimately, Rwanda’s investments in both technology and its own people have inched the state toward its goal of creating a middle-income society through an ICT-based economy. With the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Information Technology Report ranking Rwanda as the most network-ready nation in East Africa, and the World Health Organization finding that the country spends the continent’s highest proportion of its budget on health care, the once-failed state is setting itself up for success.

In the eyes of Carter Crockett, a co-founder of the Kigali-based consulting firm Karisimbi Business Partners and the founding director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Gordon College in Massachusetts, Rwanda has a fighting chance. “The best thing Rwanda’s IT strategy has going for it is its bold vision for the future,” Crockett said over the phone. “It’s a very small country that likes to dream very big. People are attracted to big visions, and that’s what Rwanda’s got going for it.”