Rwanda’s Constitutional Changes Are a Potential Threat to its Rising Tech Scene
This past week saw Rwanda change its constitution to allow President Paul Kagame hold his office until 2034. An overwhelming 98.4% of the public voted ‘yes’ in favor of the national referendum.
Many credit Kagame with ending the country’s civil war and setting it on a course of economic development by investing heavily in infrastructure. With very few natural resources at its disposal, the government has given much attention to developing its ITC sector, hoping this will attract investors and multinational companies. The country still relies heavily on foreign aid but hopes to move from an agricultural economy to a services led economy – ultimately building the middle class and a new generation of tech savvy Rwandans.
In 2005 internet access and mobile networks were limited in Rwanda. Now 4,500 kilometers of fiber-optic cable has been laid and 65% of the population actively use cell phones. And internet access is set to continue to grow rapidly. Last year the government committed to rolling out a 4G network with the goal of bringing high speed internet access to 95% of the population within 3 years. In rural areas people can already access free internet in special centers and on buses. The government and private investors have also launched a plan for a $100m venture fund aimed at creating 100 local high-tech businesses worth $50m in 5 years. The fund is expected to launch in June 2016.
These developments have brought with them a new generation of Rwandan entrepreneurs. A number of co-working spaces and accelerators have opened up across the country. One such space, kLab (or Knowledge Lab), focusses on creating digital entrepreneurs. They have 364 members and provide free WiFi, training seminars, mentors and networking opportunities with venture capitalists. Among their successful start-ups is an online shopping center, an app that raises investment funds for farmers and mobile food delivery service.
However, while these technological and economic advancements are exceptional, the political process of the country is a little unnerving to those looking in from the outside. Ambassadors from Britain, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Sweden have raised concerns over Kagame’s human rights record. There are strong concerns that the government is stifling the press and political opposition. Questions have also been raised over Kagame’s incursions into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Samantha Power, the U.S.’s ambassador to the United Nations, has urged Kagame to step down in 2017 when his term ends to ensure a peaceful transition to a new generation of leaders.
How will these political issues impact the tech aspirations of the country? It’s difficult to say. However, the referendum and ensuing constitutional change do pose a potential threat to the budding tech scene in Rwanda. Much of its success relies on outside investment from multinationals and investors. If these parties are unnerved by the political developments it may push up the expected riskiness of a Rwandan investment, and thus, dampen the potential for growth that has shown such promise.