Wired Hopes for Rwanda

Rwanda is still one of the poorest nations in the world, heavily reliant on subsistence farming and international help. Aid agencies and the government are opening "telecenters," where people can make cheap phone calls, send e-mails, and learn about the Internet.

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The tiny African nation of Rwanda wants to become that continent's most wired nation. This is one of the poorest nations in the world. Eighty-five percent of the population survives on less than $2 per day. In the next decade and a half, however, Rwanda hopes to transform itself, creating a knowledge-based economy. Our report from NPR's Jason Beaubien starts in a remote Rwandan town.

JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:

The town of Jamata(ph) is less than 20 miles from the Rwandan capital Kigali, but the dirt road between them is deeply rutted and the trip by car takes almost an hour and a half. Ninety percent of the people in the area are subsistence farmers. Most have no electricity, but the government of Rwanda wants to make sure the people here aren't left behind by the information revolution. With the help of aid agencies, the government is promoting telecenters. Paul Berara(ph), who runs the telecenter near Mata(ph), says local farmers, even those who are illiterate, benefit.

Mr. PAUL BERARA (Telecenter Operator): We have phone, a cheap, cheap phone. So they can call at the cheapest price and also they come for sending e-mails. Here I have the workers who can help them to read and to send e-mails even though they don't know using Internet.

BEAUBIEN: People can check e-mail for as little as 25 US cents. This center opened in October of last year. The government has set up 200 rural Internet access points over the last year and plans to set up 200 more by the end of 2005, but providing Internet access in rural parts of Africa can be challenging. While there are electric lines running to the new Mata telecenter, the power fails regularly, so Berara has a series of batteries that he uses as a backup. The local phone lines are terrible. So the center is linked to an Internet service provider in Kigali by a wireless connection. Berara says the center has already changed some people's lives. He describes one elderly women whose two sons work in Britain.

Mr. BERARA: So she comes here always to send and receive e-mails from her children who stay in the UK. At least every day has to get information and send information to her children.

BEAUBIEN: Berara says the local farmers can also use e-mail or the cut-rate telephones at the center to check on prices for their bananas, avocadoes and sugarcane. In the past, with little information and no means of communication, they often had to take whatever price buyers were offering. In a world accustomed to broadband Internet access, the use of e-mail by small-scale farmers might not seem surprising, but in Africa, what's happening here is unique. The survey of African Internet usage in 2002 found that excluding South Africa, only one in every 400 people in Subsaharan Africa has access to the Internet. In most African countries struggling with development and debt and disease, there's little talk about trying to provide universal access. But Raphael Mmasi, the executive director of the Rwanda Information Technology Authority, says Rwanda is going to use new communication technology to leapfrog from an agrarian society to a high-tech economy.

Mr. RAPHAEL MMASI (Executive Director, Rwanda Information Technology): By using the ICT as a tool, we may be able to modernize our economic activities. By the 2020s, we'll be having the society which is actually the information knowledge-building society.

BEAUBIEN: The goal may be overly ambitious. A plan to distribute at least one computer to each primary school had to be modified when someone noticed that most schools don't have electricity. Now the computers come with solar panels. Also, most Rwandans can't read English or French, the two most common languages on Rwandan Web sites, but Rwanda is charging forward with its plan to become, as President Paul Kagame says, the Internet hub of Central Africa. A private American company, Terracom, is laying a fiber-optic cable network between Rwanda's largest cities. It's also planning to offer wireless Internet access in every corner of the country, something that's unheard of in Africa.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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