After genocide, Rwanda looks to tech

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BUSOGO, Rwanda — The Rwandan genocide still shadows Immaculee Mukamusoni’s life. Ethnic Hutu militias killed her mother, father and siblings, and for the next two decades, she had little support. Today, she and her husband work as day laborers on a farm to provide for their five children.

But this past week, she boarded a bus that she hopes will transform her world. Outfitted with 20 laptops, it is a central part of a government initiative to bring technology to impoverished rural areas. Over the next two weeks, Mukamusoni will learn programs such as Microsoft Word and Excel, and will learn how to access Web sites and send e-mail.

“It’s been 20 years, but we continue to struggle,” said Mukamusoni, 38, who has long sought full-time work. “I hope this knowledge will help our life.”

Rwanda will commemorate the genocide’s 20th anniversary Monday with solemn ceremonies to remember the more than 800,000 people — mostly ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus — butchered over 100 days by the nation’s Hutu majority. With resentment still lingering, the government is in the midst of an ambitious effort to transform itself, the economy and society.

The goal of Rwandan President Paul Kagame is nothing short of making tiny, landlocked Rwanda a regional Silicon Valley that will attract investors and multinational companies. That, he hopes, will speed Rwanda’s transition from an agriculture-based economy to a services-oriented one and help build up a middle class and a new generation of tech-savvy Rwandans who value national identity over ethnicity.

Creating a more equal society, Rwandans hope, will prevent the ignorance, hatred and envy that fueled the 1994 massacres.

“One of the ingredients of genocide is poverty, and addressing it is an important part of the rebuilding of the country,” said Jean Philbert Nsengimana, Rwanda’s minister for youth and information and communications technology. “So what Rwanda has decided is to make IT a key component of the whole economic model.”

A more digitally literate country will help create more accountability and transparency among leaders, mitigate communal tensions and prevent Rwandans from being manipulated into killing again, he said.

But Rwanda’s aspirations face significant hurdles. Kagame’s rule has been criticized as increasingly authoritarian, and the United States and other nations have warned about a lack of freedoms and the targeting of political opponents and journalists. Last month, Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged Secretary of State John F. Kerry in a letter “to closely reevaluate U.S. engagements with Rwanda,” especially when considering “future assistance.”

In the years after the genocide, the United States and other Western donors poured billions of dollars in aid into Rwanda, driven in part by guilt for failing to act in 1994 to stop the killings. That, combined with government policies that fostered businesses and cracked down on corruption, turned Rwanda into an economic darling, lauded by the West for rebuilding the nation from the ashes of the genocide.

Education, health care and access to basic services expanded, and foreign investment poured in. People living below the poverty line dropped from 59 percent in 2001 to 45 percent in 2011, according to the World Bank. And between 2001 and 2012, growth averaged 8.1 percent per year.

Today, the streets of the capital, Kigali, are lined with new construction, elegant boutique hotels and fancy restaurants. The roads are among the best on the continent. The nation consistently tops lists as the least corrupt and most business-friendly in Africa.

But Rwanda’s staunchest allies are now voicing their displeasure at Kagame’s policies. Last month, South Africa expelled three Rwandan diplomats, linking them to murders and attempted murders of Rwandan dissidents living in exile. Kagame has denied any involvement but has also publicly branded them traitors, adding that Rwanda has a right to defend itself against those who “betray” it.

The United States, Britain and other Western donors have partially suspended aid to Rwanda for its backing of rebels in neighboring Congo, which Kagame has denied. In a report last year, the World Bank warned that the cut in foreign assistance could lead to “aid shock” that could reduce economic growth and slow progress in combating poverty.

‘Technology is a key’

For Kagame’s supporters, the outside pressure has brought more urgency to efforts to wean the country off Western foreign aid, which it relies on for 40 percent of its national budget. And most see the positioning of Rwanda as a high-tech economic hub as one solution.

“It reinforces our desire to one day not be able to depend on aid,” said Clare Akamanzi, chief operating officer for the Rwanda Development Board. “Technology is a key. We call it the driver for other economic activity.”

In 2005, mobile networks and access to Internet were limited. But by 2010, fiber-optic cables crisscrossed the country. Today, roughly 65 percent of the population actively uses cellphones. Internet access, already among the fastest in the region, is poised to grow dramatically. Last year, the government signed a deal with a South Korean firm to create a 4G network with a goal of giving high-speed Internet access to 95 percent of Rwandans within three years. In the rural areas, Rwandans can access free Internet at special centers, as well as on buses.

On the sixth floor of a building in Kigali, a group of students and recent graduates works with mentors on laptops on modernist tables and couches with colorful pillows, resembling the offices of a tech start-up. Only this space is owned by the Rwandan government, which is not charging rent.

Launched nearly two years ago, kLab, or the Knowledge Lab, is where Rwandans can become digital entrepreneurs. Here, kLab’s 364 members, who are mostly in their 20s and 30s, get free WiFi, training seminars, mentors and networking opportunities with venture capitalists. Already, its members have created an online shopping center, a Web application that raises investment funds for farmers and a cellphone-based food delivery service, among other small start-ups.

“We call kLab a mini Silicon Valley,” Jovani Ntabgoba, 28, the general manager, said with pride.

Some members are using technology to help survivors of the genocide. Next Monday, Aphrodice Mutangana, 29, is scheduled to launch a text-messaging application that will allow Rwandans to donate money to help elderly survivors who have no financial or family support.

“As the young generation, we are the future of the country,” said Mutangana, who also created a text-messaging app that sends out daily diet and health information to subscribers. “We want to show that we Rwandans, sometimes, we are able to solve our problems. We don’t have to wait for anybody.”

Building the future

On the two floors below kLab are the offices of the Rwandan branch of Carnegie Mellon University. The Rwandan government signed a 10-year contract with the school — one of the few major American universities with a presence on the continent — to provide graduate degrees in information technology and electrical and computer engineering.

One 36-year-old graduate, Alain Kajangwe, launched a company that is now designing Web applications for a Japanese firm, taking business away from firms in India and other Asian nations.

At the EPAK primary school in another part of Kigali, students use green and white laptops to create animated stories and mathematical calculations. They are part of the One Laptop Per Child project, funded by the government, that has so far brought 203,000 laptops to 407 schools across the nation. The genocide is one of the reasons the program was started.

“Education is key to our vision of becoming a knowledge-based economy, but also for our stability to ensure that people are less ignorant, less prone to the sort of propaganda that led to the genocide,” said Nkubito Bakuramutsa, a government official and national coordinator for the project. “So they won’t fall for any campaign based on hate.”

But many foreign investors still perceive Rwanda as risky because of its violent past. Interest rates for business loans are high. And many rural areas still lack electricity.

For now, though, the dream continues. On the technology bus, emblazoned with the slogan “Bridging the Digital Divide,” the students described their goals . One said he wants to learn high-tech ways to help his parents run their rural shop. Another, a counselor, wants to use PowerPoint to create better reports.

Most simply want a better life.

Their instructor, Providence Uwingeneye, views the bus as a vivid symbol of the progress Rwanda has made over the past two decades. Before the genocide, such training programs were often based on ethnicity, wealth and connections.

“In choosing students, we don’t base it on whether they are Hutu or Tutsi, whether they are poor or rich,” he said. “Now, every Rwandan has the same chance to get knowledge.”