- Author Emma Haslett
- Published May 15, 2014
Kigali, Rwanda: Tech Cities
A tiny capital nestled in a valley at the centre of a country where 80 per cent of the population still lives off the land might not seem like an obvious place for a thriving tech hub, but this is Rwanda. Nothing’s straightforward.
It’s 20 years since a tenth of the country’s population was slaughtered during a vicious genocide, and since then the capital has changed beyond recognition. If you picture sad-looking children with flies in their eyes, you’ve got it all wrong: Kigali is an increasingly modern capital where free Wi-Fi is abundant and the mobile phone rules all. (You can still get note-perfect copies of popular shoes, though…)
Of course, like most of its East African neighbours Rwanda isn’t without its problems: notably a mysteriously well-funded ‘militia’ called the M23 that makes bloody trips across the Congolese border. Plus there’s a good chance the government will change the constitution so President Paul Kagame can stay in office for another term.
But credit where it’s due. When Kagame took the helm in 2003 his intention was clear: he wanted Rwanda to become a middle income country. Essentially, the country had to whoosh past the industrial revolution and skid headlong into the digital age. Kagame gave himself until 2020 to do it.
Hence a rash of deal-making with the likes of Korea Telecom, which agreed at the end of 2013 to supply 4G to 95% of the population by 2016; and with Facebook, whose Internet.org foundation announced in March that it would provide free ‘social learning’ apps to students, alongside free smartphones provided by Nokia, and even free Wi-Fi. To give you an idea of just how important the government thinks the internet is, since 2009 it has spent $95m on 1,865 miles of fibre-optic cable, creating a digital link to neighbours including Uganda and Kenya.
In turn, the government is actively encouraging people to get online. “It’s hard to convince someone to use the internet when it doesn’t use the local language,” says Chantal Umutoni, head of sales and distribution at Tigo, one of Rwanda’s largest mobile operators. “Most people here speak Kinyarwanda, but a lot of the content is in foreign languages. Now the government is looking at investing in content so people feel they are eager to use the internet.”
You only need to step onto Kigali’s chaotic streets (two lanes of traffic going in the opposite direction to the way you want to go? No problem – just squeeze between them) to see how mobile-mad Rwandans are. Tigo only set up shop in Kigali in 2009, but it already has a 32 per cent market share.
How? Guerilla marketing: when the government passed a law saying Kigali’s thousands of moped drivers had to wear high-vis jackets, Tigo bought a load in its characteristic blue, whacked its logo on the back and handed them out. Hey presto – thousands and thousands of moving billboards, all over the streets of Kigali.
The difference between the Kigali and, say, Shoreditch, is that the majority of people are still using old-fashioned mobile phones. No 3G, no apps. Lots of Snake. Not that that changes how much they use them: the number of people with mobile phones has grown from just under a quarter of the population 10 years ago, to just over two-thirds at the end of last year.
Kigali’s Silicon Valley
At the centre of Kigali’s burgeoning tech scene – its Silicon Valley, if you will – is Telecom House, an unassuming, 80s-looking, five-storey office block, stuck out on a dual carriageway on the way to the airport. It’s not the most glamourous of locations – but then a certain Cupertino-based company started in a garage…
The building contains a few tech startups, but its top floors house what are arguably the Kigali tech scene’s two most important organisations: Carnegie Mellon University (CMU to its friends) and kLab, Kigali’s answer to Google Campus.
CMU pitched up in the country a couple of years ago, after Kagame himself asked it to teach its masters in computer engineering to students in Kigali. Everything about the course – down to its $20,000 (£12,000) price tag – is identical to the American version. The only difference is that there are just 22 graduates a year, and most of them are sponsored by the government.
When they’ve graduated, many of CMU’s alumni move upstairs to kLab, Kigali’s startup incubator. With the fastest broadband speeds in the country, kLab plays host to dozens of developers, all of whom share that classic habit of developers across the globe: vast mugs of coffee.
The difference between them and their western compadres, though, is that many of the developers at kLab are creating SMS-based apps, which work on those ancient, pre-smartphone phones.
“We have people working for the agriculture sector – weather, information sharing between farmers; we have people working on applications for the energy sector, the finance sector – you can’t imagine,” says Jovani Ntabgoba, kLab’s general manager.
Who said you needed something mainstream to conquer the world? Not these guys. Kigali’s tech scene might still be at fledgling stage, but with so much creativity and zeal it’s only a matter of time before it starts making waves on the world stage.