Rwanda’s investment in technology is not restricted to the country’s urban areas. Rural communities benefit too through the development of a telecentre network.
The Government of Rwanda’s document, ‘Vision 2020’, sets out plans that will transform the country’s economy from being largely dependent on agriculture to concentrating on providing knowledge and information services. The processes involved in this transformation are outlined in four national information and communication infrastructure (NICI) plans. Each plan covers a specific five-year period between 2000 and 2020, during which time the government hopes that Rwanda will have reached middle-income status.
The first NICI strategy from 2001–2005 set out to create conditions within the country that would favour a technology-based economy. The second plan enabled the development of the necessary infrastructure. This plan, NICI II, concluded at the end of 2010, and the country is currently in the process of implementing NICI III. This will shift the focus to the provision of technology-related service industries. A central goal for the 2011–2015 plan is to engage Rwanda’s population in the process, prepare them for the shift in the economic environment, and involve them in the creation of new jobs and businesses.
A significant component of the national strategy is its focus on developing skills and building opportunities in rural areas through the establishment of local ICT centres, also known as telecentres. Here, people can use computers, access the internet and other digital technologies to gather information, create, learn, and communicate. So far, twelve centres and two mobile ICT buses are in operation and another eighteen centres will soon be open. But because the goal is to have a telecentre in every Rwandan village, the current speed of deployment is too slow.
In an effort to increase the rate of telecentre development, the Rwandan Telecentre Network (RTN) is supporting government efforts and has set out to create a countrywide network of 1000 ICT centres by the end of 2015. The project also includes training local staff to work in the centres. These trained personnel will help their communities develop digital content such as websites and blogs as a means of sharing information and experiences with others throughout the country. RTNs work is in line with the requirements of the national ICT plan in that it promotes the innovative use of technology for development, and generates employment opportunities in rural areas. Both of these aspects tie in with the aims of the overall NICI strategy, which is to raise awareness of the benefits of a technology-based economy and to reduce the number of people migrating from rural to urban areas.
One of the consequences of the new strategy is that agricultural production could diminish as more emphasis is placed on the technology sector. Rwanda could then run the risk of causing food supply shortages in the future, or of becoming reliant on importing basic provisions. To prevent such problems, the government has introduced a number of projects that will use ICTs to support farmers. Farmers will be able to use an e-market service, E-Soko, on their cell phones and on the web to access up-to-date market data, while most the information activities will be coordinated by a central agricultural information centre.
The new telecentres will play an essential part in developing rural communications systems too. Their job will be to ensure that farmers get the information they need to maintain sufficiently high levels of production. Staff at the centres will train farmers to use the technology to share advice and ideas with other farmers throughout the telecentre network. Mobile ICT centres will the service areas where there are no telecentres.
So far, the Rwandan Telecentre Network coordinates 150 telecentres in the country, 90% of which are located in semi-urban and rural areas. Local entrepreneurs operate the centres, which have between five and twenty computers and other equipment such as scanners, printers, televisions, CD ROMs and video players.
There is, however, a lack of relevant content that would be interesting to people living in rural communities. Most of the current users, therefore, are students researching academic topics and business people seeking to establish contact with other companies or promoting their products and services.
In the meantime, RTN makes its own contribution to the production of local content by publishing articles on ICT for development issues and providing information on the web in English and the local language, Kinyarwanda. The organisation also stimulates debate by organising radio programmes and discussions, and plays a critical role in the national team working on the implementation of NICI III.
Rwandans are already used to using traditional media, such as newspapers and radio to debate national issues. And, as the network of telecentres expands and people develop their skills using the new technology, rural communities will have a greater opportunity to communicate their concerns and help to shape future government policy.