How Rwanda stole Kenya's thunder in ICT innovation

Last week, Rwanda grabbed international headlines after announcing major developments in the country’s ICT sector.

The first was a revelation by ICT and Innovation minister Paula Ingabire that the country would be opening Africa’s first smartphone factory.

Ms Ingabire, 36, who was appointed to the Cabinet last year, said the project would include local telecommunication firms and financial partners to provide payment plans for low-income Rwandans to purchase the locally produced devices.

The announcement came just days before the country launched its first satellite, dubbed Icyerekezo, into orbit.

The satellite, launched in partnership with global telecommunications company OneWeb, will link remote areas and schools in Rwanda to high-speed Internet.

“Rwanda’s choice to invest in space technologies is part of our broader mission to bridge the digital divide by providing equal digital opportunities to rural and remote communities,” said Ingabire in a statement.

Regional hub

“This partnership responds to our intention of becoming a regional technology innovation hub, opening new pathways for connectivity, providing better education and creating new opportunities for our innovators.”

The recent strides Kigali has made in the ICT sector are now causing jitters in Nairobi.

Despite getting a headstart, Kenya seems to be losing ground to Rwanda in the race to establish the region’s innovation hub as a series of policy blunders dampens innovation and investor appetite in the ICT sector.

At first glance, Kenya still enjoys several advantages over Rwanda even as the latter is fast closing the gap. The World Bank puts Kenya’s adult literacy at 78 per cent compared to Rwanda’s 74 per cent.

Kenya’s higher education sector is also more advanced and the skills and talent market more diverse compared to Rwanda. It has also executed more nation-wide projects, with varying degrees of success compared to Rwanda.

Last year, Kenya launched its first satellite that will have several uses including helping in land use and environmental monitoring, weather forecasting, communication and disaster management.

The country enjoys a more developed ICT infrastructure with a large fibre optic cable footprint, more households connected to wired broadband and wider smartphone adoption compared to Rwanda.

On the other side however, Kenya’s policy missteps, lack of adequate support and investment in skills development and poor accountability in government is holding the country back from reaping the benefits of the strategic advantages.

A case in point is the Government’s questionable implementation of the digital literacy programme.

Initially pitched by President Uhuru Kenyatta while on the 2013 campaign trail, the project was supposed to provide every student joining public primary schools with a free laptop by the following year.

However, the project was delayed by three years and rolled out as the digital literacy programme, promising to deliver and install 1.2 million devices in the 23,951 public primary schools in Kenya by the end of 2017.

Auditor General Edward Ouko last year raised significant audit queries relating to the project that has so far received more than Sh71 billion cumulatively since the 2013/2014 financial year.

In a special audit of the ICT Authority where he gave an adverse opinion, Mr Ouko said payment vouchers for Sh15 billion spent on the project could not be accounted for, with another Sh603 million spent on laptops with factory defects.

The Government however insists that the project is still on course and that it is now advancing to the second phase.

“Our design for rolling out the Digital Learning Programme was in three phases,” said Education Principal Secretary Belio Kipsang when he appeared before Parliament’s Education Committee last week.

“Phase one was to provide a digital device to every learner, phase two which we are now working on, is to do the digital laboratory model and we are therefore within the planned activities we envision,” he said.

Aside from the free laptops, policy makers in the ICT sector have come under pressure over the execution of several key public projects that have raised doubt on taxpayers getting value for money.

This includes the eCitizen project that is currently embroiled in a court case after Treasury Principal Secretary Kamau Thugge revealed that hundreds of millions in transaction fees had been routed to private accounts instead of Government.

Despite a directive by Parliament last year that control of the eCitizen platform be moved from the Treasury to the ICT ministry, little headway seems to have been made.

This has scuttled the rollout of the platform to other ministries and counties as initially planned, with frequent outages reported by users seeking to access public services.

The disconnect between the rapidly-evolving private sector and bureaucratic public sector is largely to blame for the slowdown in innovation in favour of neighbours such as Rwanda and Ethiopia.

In 2010, Kenya was riding the “Silicon Savannah” hype and basking in the glory of M-Pesa and crowd sourcing app Ushahidi that thrust the country to the international scene as an ICT powerhouse.

This informed the rise and popularity of pitching competitions between 2010 and 2015 where developers took to the stage annually to showcase their innovations and win millions of shillings in capital to build their businesses.

The past few years have illustrated how this strategy has fallen short of its primary goal of building an ICT ecosystem of new start-ups that scale naturally by serving an unmet need for the market and creating jobs for the thousands of unemployed ICT professionals.

Pivot East, the inaugural pitching competition organised by mLab that started in 2011, offered Sh1 million to five start-ups each year after sifting through dozens of application from local enterprises.

In 2016, the competition was quietly stopped with some organisers and sponsors citing a drop in the standards of apps presented to the competition.

It also emerged that most start-ups in the country’s bustling innovation hubs that receive funding were headed by founders from Western countries, leaving the vast majority of locall outfits without crucial support to grow past the initial phase.

This means start-ups such as Maramoja, the ride-hailing app that went live almost two years before Uber made an entry into the Kenyan market, are left to struggle alone, against heavily funded Silicon Valley-based competitors.

Nanjira Sambuli, a senior policy manager at the World Wide Web Foundation, says the Government’s failure to match the efforts of the private sector following the global success of Ushahidi and M-Pesa is partly to blame for the waning of the local start-up ecosystem.

“The hype was not supported with the requisite infrastructure to create a sustainable ecosystem,” she told Weekend Business.

“It takes more than hype to create the next M-Pesa or Ushahidi, and the investments like education reform, proper implementation of ICT strategies like Konza that the State ought to have made to build the solid foundation for the budding ecosystem have stalled.”

Ms Sambuli says the pressures of finding and training talent as well as raising funding and building a client base have killed many promising start-ups that could have raised the country’s profile as a regional ICT hub.

“Kenya’s greatest asset is its human capital, which remains underutilised while Rwanda has drawn investments in infrastructure in a technical sense and uses that to hone its human capital through propping up universities, hubs, research centres and companies,” she says.

“An ICT hub’s competitive edge isn’t just about their version of ‘Konza’ or ‘Kigali Innovation City’; rather it’s about how the human, political, technical, economical and socio-cultural assets are managed.

“Rwanda’s government understands this, and has seemingly also taken a more patient approach, rather than riding hype waves,” Sambuli says.

In fact, Rwanda is learning from the policy missteps that Kenya continues to make, leapfrogging hurdles that bog down the latter in establishing an ICT economy that directly translates to value for the local economy and its citizens.

Kenya has largely left the establishment of coding schools like Moringa School and Andela to private firms, limiting access among low-income families that cannot afford the relatively high training fees.

Public coding

Rwanda’s government, on the other hand, is championing public coding schools and last month the country launched the Rwanda Coding Academy.

The institution offers students who have completed their lower secondary education a three-year software engineering course with training in software programming, embedded programming and cyber-security.

Sixty students, half of them girls, have so far been enrolled in the academy with the government planning at least one coding academy in each of its five provinces targeting to enroll 300 students each year.

This is important because Rwanda will soon match the advantage in skills that Kenya currently enjoys.

At the same time, Rwanda has implemented more business reforms and tackled corruption in the public sector more efficiently. This has seen the country ranked 29th globally in the World Bank Ease of Doing Business index compared to Kenya’s 61st position.

Sambuli says Kenya’s policy makers need to go back to the drawing board and align theoretic strategies with the recommended reforms by stakeholders directly engaged with the market.

“Within the ICT sector ‘vertical’, we have challenges such as legal frameworks and regulations with the stalled Privacy and Data Protection Bill being a recent case in point,” she says.

“We still have a long way to go in ensuring that we have universal, affordable access to broadband, to power connectivity that’s paramount for any digital economy to kick off.”