This Rwanda is a world away from the Rwanda of 13 years ago. The 1994 civil war razed its infrastructure and decimated its population. Around 1m people were murdered, and twice that many fled the country. The small, land-locked country, in which nine out of 10 people subsist through agriculture, started its long, painful journey into the 21st century with a huge handicap.

Google Joins the Technology Push into Sub-Saharan Africa

Out of the ashes of civil war, Rwanda aims to rebuild itself as an information economy.

By Danny Bradbury

Amid the online buzz about Google's push into Africa at the end of March, few people realised the scope of its plans. Google, which partnered with the governments of Kenya and Rwanda to offer them its Google Apps, is playing a long waiting game on the continent.

Anyone can download Google Apps for free, but Google has engineers on the ground in the two countries helping the institutions to offer the applications under their own domain names, as it did for millions of university students in Egypt last December. Under these separate deals, its first in sub-Saharan Africa, it will also provide guaranteed service and support to the institutions. In Rwanda, 20,000 users across three universities and some government departments will get to use services like Google's Mail and Calendar.

This Rwanda is a world away from the Rwanda of 13 years ago. The 1994 civil war razed its infrastructure and decimated its population. Around 1m people were murdered, and twice that many fled the country. The small, land-locked country, in which nine out of 10 people subsist through agriculture, started its long, painful journey into the 21st century with a huge handicap.

Instead of following the traditional routes of economic development, the Government decided to try and leapfrog large parts of industrialisation altogether and turn itself into an information economy. In 2000, it launched a concerted 20-year umbrella plan to develop its ICT sector as part of a wider Vision 2020 initiative that officials hope will quadruple its GDP.

Rwanda is training its own people while bringing in outside experts to help on a series of ambitious projects. Eight people from the team responsible for the Malaysian internet super-corridor have been bought in to help with the plan.

Developing Portals

In its dash to catch up with the West, Rwanda's shopping basket - and wallet - seems bottomless. It relies heavily on funds from the UN and from European countries. For example, the Rwandan IT Authority (RITA) is wholly sponsored by the Swedish government.

ICT projects seem to litter officials' desks. The Dutch are paying for a fibre optic backbone that will be in place by 2008. Local government portals have been developed, along with a chain of community internet centres. And then there's the national DVB-H network.

"We converted the TV and radio networks from analogue to digital and implemented terrestrial internet broadcast services," says Peter Fullarton, interim director of RITA. He got the $2m (£1m) for the first phase of the $7m project during an impromptu meeting, when the president signed over the cash to get things moving. "48 days later, we turned on phase one."

Fullarton also claims to have slashed internet connectivity costs by 70% by using a transponder from Intelsat at wholesale prices, and using state-of-the-art equipment to compress the data. Co-ownership of an Earth station in Sweden gives Rwanda a direct link into the European backbone, he says.

This means that he can sell internet access to places like Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania for $1,300 per megabit, as opposed to traditional costs of around $4,200. Developments such as these are catalysing the economy; by this summer, a large American company will be piloting outsourced software development in Rwanda.

During its frenetic rush to catch up, Rwanda ran into the arms of MIT's Nicholas Negroponte and his One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. President Paul Kagame signed up to OLPC in January and the country is due to take delivery of its first laptops any day now.

Not everyone is happy about the decision, which Kegame made in conjunction with the ministries of education, and science and technology. Fullarton, charged with fuelling the growth of the Rwandan ICT economy, was not directly involved.

"The device is relatively expensive. It's not the $100 laptop that people believe it to be," says Fullarton, who also frets that there aren't enough networks in rural Rwanda to support the initiative.

The idea behind the laptop, each of which will ship with 1GB of Flash memory, is that a wireless mesh network will enable children to share each other's storage, says Negroponte, founder of the project. "The mesh network is made for a place like Rwanda," he says, adding that he has partners working on $10 DVD and hard drives. "And it was always to cost more than $100 at launch, with the $100 price being approximately two years later."

Still, Fullarton is pushing the development of an indigenous PC vendor, privately-funded Emara. With just 10 employees, the company has small beginnings. It will assemble components shipped to it by Swedish design firm JDL Humantech, which is hoping that its design for a low-powered, developing world-friendly PC will also sell in other places including Latin America.

African Beach Head

"The typical first customer in most of the countries we're dealing with is the education or public sector," says JDL's director of marketing development Johan Holmberg, who expects the computers to retail at $350. Off-the-shelf computers in Rwanda currently cost $1,000-$1,200 thanks to complicated supply chains. He hopes to cut his prices using a low margin, high-value model.

Holmberg hopes that Rwanda - the first market for the firm's design - might ship 3-4,000 units per year, but wants volume shipments of 200,000 units in 12-18 months through markets like Ethopia, Ghana, and some countries in Asia and Latin America. He claims to be negotiating with partners in 50 countries. In the meantime, Emara is gearing up to sell the assembled PC to neighbouring markets.

As Rwanda and its partners bustle into the 21st century, Google (also a sponsor of the OLPC initiative) is watching and waiting. Francoise Brougher, global director of strategy and business operations, is eager to see the rollout of last-mile infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa so that it can bring its network-based computing model to the wider public there. She is hoping to roll out Google Apps to many more users in Rwanda and Kenya before the end of the year.

Google provided the Google Apps services to Rwanda free of charge because it wants to create the demand for more internet services. But use the word "donation" and Brougher sounds offended. "It's an investment," she retorts.

Rwanda and Kenya are the company's beachhead into Africa. Eventually, it wants to be in every country in sub-Saharan Africa, which holds over 10% of the world's population and which will top a billion by 2025.

"We have two objectives: the first is to go across all the countries in sub-Saharan Africa," says Brougher.

This raises questions about Google's approach to difficult political regimes. Google's mission is to make information free and universally accessible, yet it has already complied with the Chinese government's censorship requirements.

"We are going to have a case-by-case analysis of the situation before we go in," says Brougher. "I will call my colleague in policy." Clearly, she has some difficult conversations ahead of her.

Originally appeared in Guardian.

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