Kigali,Capital City of Rwanda became the first city in East Africa to launch free wireless Internet in specific areas of the capital last week under the “Smart Kigali” initiative, joining the ranks of “digital cities” such as Toronto, Houston, Buenos Aires, Bangkok and Taipei.

This puts Rwanda ahead of the pack in the digital race in East Africa, giving it an edge over Kenya’s much-hyped Konza City, which is yet to take off despite a colourful launch early this year.

Konza TechnoCity has been in the works for several years now and is intended to be an innovation and tech incubation centre serviced by the best ICT infrastructure in East Africa. The delay in building has been blamed on government bureaucracy and confusion over city boundaries.

East Africa’s tech start-ups are hosted in small open-plan spaces such as iHub and mLab in Nairobi, KinuHub and TanzICT in Dar es Salaam, and Outbox and Hivacolab in Kampala. But Kigali’s move to offer free wireless around the city will extend Rwanda’s tech footprint in the region, and leapfrog key stages of industrialisation.

A busy Kigali street. A free wifi project has Rwanda ahead of the pack in the digital race in East Africa. FILE

“I am so excited about the wireless Internet. I can now browse the internet, read news and send e-mails. I just come here to surf the Internet, since I am still looking for a job,” said Goreti Uwamariya, a student at Kigali Independent University.

Philbert Nsengimana, Minister for ICT, reassured the public that the project is sustainable because it comes with a business model and added that the government has plans to ensure more Rwandans have access to smart devices to tap into the opportunity.

Critical mass

The government has in the past launched projects in the ICT sector that crumbled before take off because of lack of sustainability—Rwanda did not have the critical mass of Internet users to make the projects viable.

But according to RDB reports, in the past five years, Rwanda has registered one of the highest Internet user growth rates in Africa with 8,900 per cent compared with the continent’s growth rate of 2,450 per cent and the world average rate of 444 per cent.

Rwanda now has an Internet penetration of around 800,000 users and is targeting five million users by 2016.

The government strongly believes that information and communications technology can enable Rwanda leap-frog the key stages of industrialisation.

In 2010, more than 38.9 per cent of Rwanda’s public sector (ministries, agencies, provinces and districts) and 34.5 per cent of the private sector had a web presence. According to government statistics, there are over 3.1 million mobile subscribers, representing 32 per cent penetration of mobile usage.

Vision 2020

The country’s Vision 2020 hopes to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country and transition from an agrarian economy into an information-rich, knowledge-based society by 2020.

Mr Nsengimana argues that Smart Kigali is not a project to benefit only the elite who can afford smart gadgets but will extend to the majority of Rwandans after the government launched Vizio, a programme that will see it negotiate with manufacturers and banks to offer smart gadgets to low income citizens.

He also noted that though Internet is being provided free of charge, telecommunication companies stand to make gains as more hotels and businesses come on board. The government has also established necessary infrastructure by way of a fibre optic cable throughout the country.

Antoine Bigirimana, an industry expert, said the wireless initiative will increase the range of service consumers in different categories although the cost must be zero or extremely small, like Rwf100, to attract users.

“Smart Kigali is a good marketing move, it helps us convince tourists and foreigners that it is good and easy to do business in Rwanda,” he said.

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