By Ebenezer Asante
An ICT boom has started in Rwanda but how smart are users in adopting ICTs in everyday life?
From October 2 to 3, Rwanda held the Smart Rwanda conference. Held under the auspices of the Ministry of Youth and ICT the conference flowed from the Smart Africa agenda on which Rwanda plays a pivotal role and is the lead for one of the pillars. The two-day event featured topical ICT content such as Digital Payments, ICT Governance, Internet innovations, Smart City, Open Data and Digital innovations. The state of ICT in Rwanda, ICT business innovations, partnerships, and even bigger opportunities in Broadband and general Data space, were discussed.
The Oxford Dictionary gives the meaning of being “Smart” as “being mentally sharp” and “neat in a brisk, sharp style”. In ICT sense Smart could mean applying ICT to make wise choices, to solve developmental problems in a way that can enhance the quality of life and short-circuit the development cycle sustainably. Thus to be Smart means to be both Efficient (speed and use of minimum resources), and to be Effective (attaining the developmental goal the right way – in this case attaining inclusive ICT usage for sustainable national growth with minimal environmental impact).
It is therefore no wonder that most ICT solutions functionally have minimal environmental footprints in their less use of paper (and hence trees), water, fuel, emissions, etc. If the use of ICT is to save the time and money in driving from one point to the other (using phone call, telepresence, teleconference or video conference as examples), then they are also saving the use of fuel and thereby contributing to positive environmental impact. Smart Rwanda will therefore mean using ICT as a vehicle for Smart development to improve quality of life in Rwanda without compromising on the environment. Perhaps the entire world needs to go seriously smart to save the globe from emerging environmental catastrophes.
Smart Rwanda also goes beyond the ‘hardware’ of ICT use but also the ‘software’ in its adoption, mind-set and thinking, that for all problems we will look for the smartest keys to unlock. Hence such smart ICT-led development will not only be participative but also expansive, sustainable and humanely ethical. The value of Smart Rwanda agenda should therefore not be underestimated as it could sit at the very centre of things. It is not surprising then that this noble vision is driven by the President of Rwanda, His Excellency Paul Kagame across all sectors of the economy.
SMART RWANDA as a catalyst for economic development
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) sources indicate that 10% growth in Broadband contributes at least 1.2% to GDP. This is not surprising when you consider that ICT is the most pervasive of all technologies, cutting across all sectors of the economy affecting all human endeavours as individuals, firms, governments and even multinational institutions. Thus ICT potentially has individual, national and global impacts even when it functions at the local level; they serve as enablers of all activities; social, economic, and others. To understand the power of ICT on your life, put away your personal phone for a day, and see how your life will be without your most loyal gadget.
At the most fundamental level, economies grow when more goods and services are produced, sold and consumed. Growth is also determined by the speed at which such value-adding activities take place and the number of people who derive benefits from the value creation chain. Therefore a basic ICT item like a mobile phone should be deemed as an electronic device connecting all economic and social agents spatially – local, national, regional and global. The traditional notion that ICT eliminates jobs, and therefore is anti-human has long been buried. ICT actually produces good quality high end sustainable jobs locally, nationally and globally. The more people are connected productively, the more they produce and hence the higher the Gross National Product, all things remaining constant.
In Africa today, telecomspectrum through voice and Data is the most equitably distributed public good. Mobile phones are owned and used by all irrespective of socio-economic status. Therefore the dialogue on ICT must happen at all levels of society irrespective of class or status, level of education or otherwise, city dwellers or those living outside the cities. ICT is also gender neutral and even age-neutral. ICT is arguably the most unselfish of all natural resources and their distribution. This is the reason all players in the industry must work harder to put at least one phone in the hand of every Rwandan. We must remove the barriers to phone ownership and usage be they affordability, applicability, knowledge or even cultural.
We need to work with all corporate entities to provide ICT solutions that can make businesses find innovative solutions to existing and emerging customer needs. We need to expand ICT Innovations beyond those within the industry (internet, apps, content, programming, advanced algorithm, hardware architecture and so forth). We need to use ICT to solve every day human problems. The Ministry of Health is using ICT to provide healthcare services to pregnant women in the remotest part of Rwanda. The Ministry of Education, in providing connectivity to most schools and offering free Wikipedia for researchers, students and teachers (as in the case of MTN), and the Ministry of Agriculture to provide basic extension services, pertinent agriculture information and commodity prices as in the case of the e-Soko initiative.
Almost every sector of the economy and every Ministry in Rwanda has practical ICT solutions to basic everyday problems. Kigali City and all Districts in Rwanda actively use ICT e-Governance, data gathering and information sharing. There is one pioneering Project championed by Rwanda Development Board (RDB) dubbed Rwanda Online that will make it possible to access, pay and get instant public service delivery from anywhere near and remote, local or foreign, in subscribing to any Government Agency service for a fee.
When Rwanda Revenue Authority (RRA) makes it possible for businesses to pay their taxes via handsets they do not only seek to creatively expand the tax net but to eliminate the pain and the burden of the business person travelling to the collection point and joining long queues just to discharge their lawful and civic duties. They make the tax payer even more productive in order to contribute more subsequently.
All this contributes to demystify taxation and the use of ICT, rope in more payers and to further champion the national development agenda. In the process, there is a spin-off benefit in expanding ICT literacy to an otherwise informal sector that would have taken long to use ICT to their business operations. Government is leading the way with Ministries, Districts and Agencies applying ICT in the most practical way. Individuals and businesses must take inspiration from these worthy examples.
ICT Revolution in Rwanda
An ICT boom has started in Rwanda. Out of the 22 countries in Africa and elsewhere where MTN operates, Rwanda has one of the highest consumption of internet per person. From GSMA (the Global body that coordinates all GSM-based Telecom activities) sources, Rwanda has the fifth highest level of mobile money penetration in the world and Rwanda is one of the nine countries in the world with more mobile wallets (Mobile Money Accounts) than the number of bank accounts attained in 2013.
The ICT revolution is on and there is more to be done. The critical question that every one of us must answer and every business must respond to is; How Smart are we as users? How smart are we in using ICT in our everyday life? How smart are our businesses in using ICT solutions to differentiate ourselves, run our internal operations and processes as well as deliver innovative solutions to our customers, whether basic or advanced?
ICT and Smart Citizen, Smart Life
Today, your handset goes beyond a mere phone – for many of us the handset is a phone, chat-line, offers Internet access, is a radio, flashlight, TV, Camera/Video, scanner, entertainment (music, games, sports etc.), watch, library (books, dictionary, encyclopaedia), language translator, computer, digital post-office, shop, bank, insurance, personal data warehouse, map/directions, organiser(diary, calendar, notepad, personal assistant, reminder, alarm service, calculator, currency convertor, etc.). To be Smart means deriving maximum personal efficiency, ease of life, and in quality decision making. All is meant to make life a whole lot brighter. To be Smart means deriving more out of the limited resources at your disposal and thereby getting more out of life. With the services already in store, how smart are we in using them to improve our lives and enhance our personal productivity and speed in acting?
Beyond these basic features, there are locally developed apps that when adopted can make us even smarter. They include Apps services such as those used in geographical positioning and tele-presence.
The degree of our Smartness as individuals depends on our adoption of existing features, ICT services made available by government, institutions and businesses alike. We are not being Smart if we delay payments using rainfall, distance/ travel, time of day or even bank or business closure as an excuse. Mobile Money as a Smart payment solution (which is speedy, available, accessible and affordable) to effect payments at all times, everywhere and to anyone in Rwanda is here.
Today in Rwanda, it is free to do any educational research, learn as a student or teacher, or acquire knowledge using Wikipedia. There is a Smart way to every need we may face so long as the will to look for Smart solutions is there.
ICT and Smart Businesses
We can look at two distinct set of businesses and entrepreneurs. First are those operating in the ICT industry itself providing value-added services to the Telcos, ISPs, and any other entity requiring such services. These providers could be locally developed Content, Apps, Programming, Software developers, business intelligence systems, IT service providers etc. The beauty of these enterprises is that they are knowledge driven, scalable and exportable at least cost. This is because to build scale or export the service, they rely on the same Smart ICT facilities to drive. Rwanda is not short of ideas, what Rwanda needs is opening up big multi-national Telcos and ISPs to do business with these up and coming ICT entrepreneurs. In the same vein, those entrepreneurs must also learn to build strong business cases and thoroughness in dealing with Telcos. We must be Smart in engaging and even taking risks to support locally bred businesses to grow.
The second segment is all other businesses and entrepreneurs that must use ICT as input to deliver Smart services, processes, and products to their customers. SMEs must become smarter in their approach in adopting simple, cost-effective ICT solutions to grow their businesses. Take advertising services for a start-up or SME with a limited advertising budget for instance. A simple example of advertising their business or product as a ring-tune on phones may help. Subscribing to digital Directory services is a creative way to make their services known to millions of potential customers in no time.
Adoption of Mobile Payment solutions such as Mobile Payroll may be an efficient way to pay outbound staff working in the field or in the regions in the shortest possible time. Accepting mobile payments affords an SME the opportunity to attract new customers who are Mobile Money users. It is also about time that local content and Apps developers turn their attention to providing customised services to local businesses and not always making the big Telcos as their targets. For ease of access, it may be about time that the ICT entrepreneurs and would-be members came together to create a one-stop shopping Portal to display all available general apps. Such a portal or a site will even make it possible for them to retail simple Apps solutions online without compromising intellectual property if it is well crafted.
Infrastructure readiness for the Digital Revolution
Huge investment has gone into providing the basic ICT infrastructure by government and the private sector led by the Telcos and the ISPs alike.
Rwanda has arguably one of the highest fibre layout per square kilometre in the world; there are three International gateways with huge capacities owned by BSC (government owned), Liquid and MTN. All technologies and spectrum (2G GPRS/ EDGE, 3G, Wimax, WIFI, Fixed Data broadband, now 4G) are all available and fully accessible in Rwanda. There is a modern state of the art Data Centre to host local content at a cheaper cost with all the security requirements fully guaranteed. I am aware that the industry accommodates enough capacity and growing broadband bandwidth to support real digital revolution.
Cost versus value argument
It is often said cost is a barrier to ICT adoption and pervasive usage. Balancing cost with derived value however helps to put the utility derived from ICT usage in perspective. A lot is already available and free.
Under an initiative championed by the Minister of ICT and the Mayor of Kigali, free 10mbs of Data are provided to all mobile data subscribers daily. This initiative has been extended to other towns in Rwanda where WIFI connectivity exists.
The fact remains that Rwanda has the lowest Data price per MB compared to the rest of Africa and indeed in most developing world. This has contributed to the high usage per capita as pointed out above. However the very heavy capital investments made by the government and the industry over the period have helped to create more supply capacity in the ICT sector. There still remains high unused capacity that needs to be filled by bringing more new users on board. As we grow ICT literacy and expand adoption, and hopefully, as cost of ICT deployment and investment goes down through driving efficiencies across industry, costs per MB would be expected to go down further.
We all have a part to play as providers to strive to provide good quality and innovative services. We must collaborate more to take needless cost out of operations by sharing more and more infrastructure, working with vendors to bring costs down and sharing the benefits of the savings with customers. We must develop and support other businesses in the ICT value chain. We must work closely with Academia to ensure we are not only the net consumers of ICT in Rwanda but part of the global innovation and ICT development supply, to Rwanda and the world. High-end ICT Engineers, Mathematicians, Physicists, Computer Scientists, etc. are in short supply globally. Top ICT hubs like Cisco, Microsoft, Google, Ericsson, and Huawei are constantly in search of top talents globally.
In conclusion, Smart Rwanda means going digital for enhanced quality of life so we must all get on board .We must apply the Smart lens to everyday life – existing problems and new.
Ebenezer Asante is the Chief Executive Officer of MTN Rwanda