Kigali City Tower. A scene any visitor would be surprised to see deep in central Africa: a tech-savvy consumer sitting in a restaurant and surfing a broadband connection with a smartphone, tablet and laptop. [..]

But in a region long associated with war and genocide, Rwanda is busy trying to reinvent itself as a regional high-tech hub by rolling out free citywide – and eventually nationwide – wireless connectivity.

“I came here to use the internet. Sometimes I download videos and books,” said South Korean development worker Lee Il-Mo, aged 31 and a resident of the Rwandan capital Kigali for the past two years.

“Before, I went to restaurants or coffee bars, and I had to buy a drink. But here it’s a free area,” he said, sitting in Kigali City Tower, dubbed the city’s new tech hub and one of the first steps to the so-called ‘Smart Kigali’ project.

Last month, the Rwandan government announced it had started to cover the lush green, rolling hills of the capital with wireless hotspots.

This was the first stage of a plan to provide Wi-Fi coverage to all schools and public buildings, markets, bus stops and hotels in the city and, in the long term, to the entire country.

Rwanda’s minister in charge of Information Technology, Jean Philibert Nsengimana, said he wanted to see the plan “accelerate the growth of the internet sector” and attract more investors.

“Connectivity is one of the most important incentives for business in the age of digital economy,” he said, asserting that free Wi-Fi was merely a step in the direction of a much bigger infrastructure goal – that of fourth generation, or 4G, access.

In June, the Rwandan government signed for South Korea’s KT Corp to build a 4G network aiming to supply 95% of the country, up from the estimated 10% who currently have 3G access.

“Broadband access,” said Nsengimana, “should be thought of as a necessity, just like water and electricity.”

Not quite an African Tiger

For Rwanda’s government, the stakes are high.

President Paul Kagame and his ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) have dominated Rwandan politics since the ousting of the Hutu extremists that ended the genocide nearly 20 years ago. He is attempting to push through a dramatic transformation, taking Rwanda from trauma to economic success.

Ranked one of the least corrupt countries in Africa, Rwanda is an interesting place to do business. It also ranked third among Sub-Saharan African countries in The World Bank’s ‘ease of doing business’ index.

But the government now wants to push economic growth to 11.5% for each of the next five years. It also aims to drive poverty from 45% to below the 30% mark and reach middle-income status by 2020 – no easy feat for an economy that’s mainly agricultural.

But for the ‘Smart Kigali’ plan to succeed, the private sector needs to stay on board.

“Smart Kigali really is a test, giving people a taste of better things to come,” explained Alex Ntale, director of the Rwanda’s Information and Communications Technology Chamber.

“But it’s not unlimited; someone has to pay at the end of the day. The private companies are testing a business model. They are trying to find out if the market is really there,” he said.

He cautioned, therefore, that if the new high-tech Rwanda fails to take off, and the programme does not turn out to be profitable, then the private sector will have “every right to switch off the machines”.

Mark Bohlund, an economist with IHS Global Insight, said he was optimistic Rwanda would develop “into a regional business service centre”, at least serving the currently war-torn but mineral-rich east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But he also pointed to tough competition from East Africa’s largest economy, Kenya, which is already ahead on mobile banking technology and home to tech giant subsidiaries, such as Intel, Google and Microsoft.

Elettra Pauletto, an analyst at Control Risks, said that, while Rwanda was scoring well on World Bank rankings due to low levels of corruption and positive attitudes towards foreign investment, it still had some way to go.

“Rwanda has focused its efforts on improving World Bank scores, but it is much weaker, so far, in its provision of follow-up services for business that have just been set up,” she said.

As for the IT sector, she said it was unlikely to become “a major factor in drawing international business interest in the short-term”.

“Rwanda will face stiff competition from Kenya and South Africa. Both are already much more experienced in the sector and have more advanced English language skills compared to Rwanda, who, until recently was primarily a Francophone country,” she said.

“Large investments typically require a large labour pool, and Rwanda just doesn’t have that available at the moment.”

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