30 years

Supporting Rwanda's telecentre revolution

It is market day in the village of Gakenke, in Rwanda's North Province, and by mid-morning the Business Development Centre is doing brisk business. "More than 50 people will come to use the computers and the Internet today," says manager Alice Nadine Kaneza. During the rest of the week, even on quiet days, at least 20 people – including students, farmers and local entrepreneurs – make use of the centre's facilities.

Managed by the Rwanda Telecentre Network (RTN) on behalf of the Rwanda Development Board, the centre offers a range of services besides the Internet. Alice and her colleagues provide secretarial assistance, advise on tax affairs and link the community to government e-services. During the first six months of 2013, RTN also ran five-day training courses on basic accounting and strategic planning that attracted over 100 people.

Among those who benefited were 10 members of the Cooperative des Agriculteurs des Fruits de Gakenke (COAPGA). "The training has made a tremendous difference to us," explains Titus Nijobigira, president of the 173-member fruit-growers cooperative. "As a result of what we've learned, we've gained access to new markets and developed a new business plan. We're now selling dried pineapples as well as fresh, and we've negotiated better prices for our produce." Members' incomes have increased, and many have been able to open savings accounts and pay for health insurance for the first time.

Vision for the future

In 2000, the Rwandan government outlined its development pathway. 'Vision 2020' proposed a shift away from a low-income, agriculture-based economy towards a 'knowledge-based economy.' Among other things, this would involve the creation of a large number of ICT access centres – or telecentres – in rural areas. Here, farmers and entrepreneurs would be able to use the Internet and benefit from the acquisition of new skills.

"It was an excellent idea, but progress was initially slow," explains Paul Barera, RTN's executive director. "The government began setting up its first telecentres in 2006, but only 30 were fully operational by 2010." The financial outlay was considerable, with each centre costing around US$100,000 to build and equip.

In 2006, soon after he left university, a small grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) enabled him to set up a telecentre in his home village of Nyamata.

Here he provided basic computer training for local people – a novelty in this area – as well as Internet and secretarial services. Later, he added other services. He acted as a representative for several companies and set up a mobile phone service for paying electricity bills. He also provided advice, free of charge, to the government. But it was his partnership with CTA that really changed his life and, just as importantly, Rwanda's approach to developing telecentres.

Building on the Indian model

In 2008, Paul was invited by CTA to attend a workshop in Zambia which focused on the sustainability of telecentres. "It was an important subject, and the workshop helped me to develop my own ideas about how to ensure a long-term future for my own telecentre," he says. "But it was my experience in India two years later that really opened my eyes."

During the course of an Indian study tour, organised by CTA in 2009, his group met a wide range of people from government, academia, the private sector and rural communities, and visited telecentres in five different states. Rather than constructing expensive purpose-built facilities, like the government of Rwanda, the Indians were fitting out existing public buildings with computers and Internet connections at a fraction of the cost, often as little as US$1000.

IMG 5401

"The Indian study tour was incredibly important in terms of my personal development, and it helped me develop a vision for the future," says Paul. "It also provided me with the evidence I needed to convince policymakers here that they should change their approach."

telecentres IMG 5451

They didn't need much persuading, once they had seen the figures, and Paul's advice led tosignificant changes in the government's ICT policy.

The first 30 telecentres – including Gakenke – are now managed by private organisations such as RTN, although they remain under the supervision of the Rwanda Development Board. The government is currently in the process of establishing another 60 telecentres, adopting the Indian model of fitting out existing buildings at relatively low cost.

RTN's mission, developed in the wake of the Indian workshop, is to help the government and the private sector create a network of 1000 telecentres. These will provide local communities with the skills they need to develop their businesses, improve the employability of young people, create jobs – each telecentre will employ at least three people – and link rural communities to government services.

Women in telecentre Burkina faso

Involving the private sector

In 2010, with support from CTA, RTN conducted a baseline study of existing 'ICT access points' in rural Rwanda. It subsequently invited the 140 entrepreneurs – cybercafé owners, telecentre managers and mobile phone providers – who managed them to a workshop. Since then RTN has held regular training sessions and workshops to improve their business skills.

The benefits have been considerable. Take, for example, the experience of Aneclet Nambajé, who lives in the northern town of Musanze. He set up his first telecentre in 2007, and offered basic training in the use of computers, as well as access to the Internet and secretarial services. Before long, he set up another three centres, but his business only really took off after the 2010 workshop. Since then he has benefited from four training sessions on subjects ranging from business management to accounting and strategic planning.

"I now have a much better understanding about how to manage the telecentres efficiently and provide the services people need," he says. He currently employs 14 people and he expects to take on more staff soon. By the end of 2015 he hopes to have established another six telecentres.

Rwanda has made remarkable progress when it comes to reducing poverty and improving the welfare of rural communities. Although some 45% of Rwandans still live below the poverty line, over one million people – out of a population of 10 million – have been lifted out of poverty during the past decade. All the evidence suggests that the creation of an ever-expanding network of telecentres will bring about further improvements in rural services and incomes.