Two years ago, Paula Ingabire was appointed as Rwanda’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology and Innovation.
There are high expectations from the 37-year old Minister because the general momentum and belief in technological advancement for Rwanda is very high and this makes her docket a centre of focus since her appointment on October 18, 2018.
One could see that the Minister was adjusting through the transition after her predecessors, Philbert Nsengimana and Jean de Dieu Rurangirwa (not much to say about him) who left a legacy of digital evolution that aims at pushing Rwanda into a large consumer of the Internet of Things (IoT).
They had their own shortcomings, some of which are Ingabire’s daunting problems to fix today.
One year later Ingabire announced that Rwanda had successfully sent into lower orbit its first satellite RWASAT-1 in November 2019. This was the prime moment for the minister.
This Minister is now saying Rwanda Space Agency (RSA) has been created and will be responsible for building capabilities that enable take advantage of space sciences and technologies for socio-economic development in Rwanda.
However, Minister Ingabire faces a very complex situation on some of the local programs following the global #COVID-19 pandemic and has not come out to elucidate on how her ministry is going to navigate through this pandemic.
The Minister seems to be much caught up by Rwanda Space program, an equally important undertaking, and this could be evidenced by how the internet of things has not been fully exploited during this #COVID-19 situation.
In the Economic Recovery Plan worth Rwf800 billion, there is also a provision for revamping Technology and Innovation.
“The #COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the need for digitisation, from remote working tools needed to minimise work disruption, to drones used to monitor and enforce lockdown measures and the use of technology and data collection tools to inform containment strategies,” government says in this recovery plan.
Students Missing out on education
Although there is an elaborate policy on establishing smart classrooms across all schools in the country, more than 2,540,374 pupils in primary school 592,501 students in secondary schools and 91,193 students in tertiary institutions are all at home and do not necessarily have access to ICT facilities.
Most schools found themselves helpless and lacked sophisticated tools to continue with offering classes.
Schools had to gamble on free, but substandard resources offered by various firms elsewhere outside the country, save for cheap Microsoft tools.
Even these tools are inaccessible to many students in poor households particularly those in deep and remote areas in the countryside.
Measures implemented against #COVID-19 pandemic will see a total of more than 3,224,068 school going Rwandans stuck at home and miss out on education until September 2020.
Rwanda accommodates 2.4 million private households, with 83% located in rural areas.
The ICT Minister should have come up with solutions to this challenge since it affects 25% of Rwandan population.
Rwanda Broadcasting Agency (RBA) and other few media outlets, such as radio stations, have begun broadcasting academic programs that are meant to target the students in a lockdown at home until September.
A closer follow up of some lessons delivered by instructors on state Television, Taarifa noticed, cannot by even the simplest standard, warrant comprehensive knowledge exchange.
Teachers embarrassingly use rudimentary tools such as a broken broomstick to point at materials written on a chalkboard or what is traditionally known as a blackboard.
This embarrassing scenario exposes the cracks in Rwanda’s highly advertised technological advancement.
The education ministry has it’s own share of blame to carry, particularly on content creation, but the lack of tools to deliver lessons is entirely Igabire’s business.
Some parents are now hesitant to pay student fees because they find tools deployed by schools too substandard, yet schools are using what is available on the market. They see no value for money.
There is also a challenge of low numbers of Rwandan households that have access to Televisions, Radios and Smartphones. However, a combined tap into these facets has a bigger potential to deliver educational materials.
According to statistics provided by Rwanda Utilities and Regulatory Authority (RURA), the country had nine million mobile cellular subscriptions by the end of May 2019.
The ICT Ministry could assemble telecoms, APP developers and technology experts to come up with quick solutions on how to deliver education material to over three million students at home.
Radio would also be a very important tool to deliver education materials to students at home.
But an average home radio (sonitec) costs about Rwf10,000 and may not be affordable to all households in the country.
RURA says there are at least 64% households with a radio set 54% with mobile phones.
Before #COVID-19, the momentum for extending free smartphones to the poor in the countryside looked promising.
Hopes were high and the campaign would have come as a handy alternative for students, but there seems to be no news about the free phones initiative.
In another dimension, a personal computer is another tool that would make it possible for students at home to access education materials; “Although the government waived taxes on computers, they remain expensive for the majority of private households,” according to the National Institute of Statistics.
The ICT Ministry should also consider the challenge of high cost of internet in the country.
This may not be effective in delivering education materials online.
Homes with at least one television set are around 8%, while those with at least one computer are as low as 2% according to the 4th Population and Housing Census report.
What about the farmers?
Since most societies are now re-focusing on Agriculture because of the adverse effects of #COVID-19, the ICT Ministry should come up with concrete suggestions on how technology could help farmers especially on finding markets, farm inputs and credible information.
Existing platforms are simply a joke. Anyone knowledgeable about the availability of a robust technological ecosystem for agriculture will simply laugh at what is available for Rwandan farmers.
The Ministry of Agriculture can be faulted for lack of useful and latest information, but even the little information is inaccessible due to lack of advanced platforms.
A quick example was the recent loss incurred by poultry farmers who had millions of eggs in stock and had not idea how to link up with potential buyers, because farmer and buyers are disconnected.
According to Rwanda Development Board (RDB), agriculture sector employs 80% of the population and contributes 33% of GDP growth.
Yet, the Ministry of ICT and Innovation has a mission of addressing national priorities for economic growth and poverty reduction through development and coordination of national information technology, communication and innovation policies and programs as well as citizen’s empowerment.
Clearly, Minister Ingabire has some serious work to do. This is not to mean that she has done nothing, but how she plans to reinvigorate her docket and deliver Rwandans to the promised land, is yet to be vividly seen.