Rwanda Update: Kagame post-election, ICT, investment & baby-booming

On August 9th President Paul Kagame (Rwandan Patriotic Front – RPF) was re-elected after winning 93% of the popular vote. So what’s in store for Rwanda with another seven years of Kagame in charge? Rwanda has benefitted hugely from international aid since the genocide of 1994 and President Kagame has played it smart on the global stage, attracting investors, political support and a growth plan that has centred around a commitment to ICT & infrastructure development.

Rwanda’s investment into high-speed internet and the ICT sector has been underway for a few years now. Southern and East African countries have all played an important role (along with international partners such as the ITU) in the completion of the major sub-sea fibre optic cables EASSY and SEACOM yet most, including Rwanda, still have to do much more to ensure the electricity supply infrastructure matches the needs of the fibre-optic infrastructure. Power cuts continue to plague internet use and are as frustrating for the new generation of savvy young users as broadband speeds.

That said, there is no doubt that the fibre-optic networks will lead countries such as Rwanda into the future and last week the ICT Minister, Ignace Gatare, commented “People were saying: ‘Rwanda you are dreaming. How can you invest [millions of] dollars when you are still an agricultural nation?’ I would respond that we cannot forget agriculture, but we cannot afford to be disconnected from the digital global economy.”

For all the technological improvements, it essential that pricing for connectivity is reduced. Much of the internet connection, especially in rural areas, is still via satellite. African countries have been paying a high price for bandwidth and we are told that the installation of the undersea cables will change all of this; but sadly this has not been the case in the past with the South Atlantic-3/West Africa Submarine Cable  (SAT-3/WASC). Prices for SAT-3 bandwidth are high ($4,500–12,000 per Mbit/s per month, over 50 times greater than bandwidth prices in the U.S.), mainly because operators have monopoly control of access. Countries like Rwanda have to make sure that their ICT dreams are delivered at a price that is fair to users, especially the low-income masses that are needed to thrive off the enablement that the internet offers.

Rwanda still continues to attract good press from a business and investment point of view. Last month the World Economic Forum praised the country in its Global Competitive Index (GCI) report. The 2010-2011 GCI shows Rwanda is one of the leading sub-Saharan African countries to undertake major reforms in the last year.  Equity Bank of Kenya has strengthened it’s commitment to Rwanda. The bank’s venture into Rwanda is informed by the fact that the country was recently recognised as the world’s top nation in adopting business regulation reforms. Bank CEO, James Mwangi said “Rwanda’s progressive policies are attracting foreign investments that require banking; that’s why we are headed there. Our success story in Southern Sudan and Uganda gives us the impetus to invest in Rwanda.”

On Wednesday, 6 October 2010 in Tunis, The Board of Directors of the African Development Bank (AfDB) approved a $30-million loan to finance the construction of Rwanda’s cement production plant (CIMERWA). The project involves the construction of a 700,000-ton per annum cement plant in Rwanda that will replace the existing 100,000 capacity plant with the objective of making up for cement supply shortage and satisfying local demand which continues to be high, mainly driven by housing sector growth and infrastructure development.

There is no doubt Kagame’s Presidency has been one of promoting innovation and investment, and he has put considerable emphasis on wealth and value creation. He recently told his cabinet that  by lifting the people out of poverty, the country would become less reliant on aid, and would, therefore, be treated with the value it deserves. Yet without a genuine pluralistic election and a crackdown on the media the shine has certainly come off some international relations; notably the White House not congratulating Kagame on his election victory. The killing of Jean Leonard Rugambage, the acting editor of Umuvugizi newspaper, led to questions being raised in the British Parliament. Previously the Umuvugizi was suspended for six months by the press council for inciting opposition to the government. This all comes at a time when cash-strapped, debt-ladened governments in London and Washington need little incentive to cut aid and development packages.

President Kagame says his job is the most difficult compared to any other presidency because he has to keep begging and pleading with foreign donors who do not want to even listen to him.  “If it does what other people do, and what other people think is right, Rwanda attracts more attention and it attracts even more unnecessary attention,” he said, adding that stories about Rwanda are created, just to keep the country in the news. The President went on to dismiss the country’s detractors who not only attempt to tarnish the country’s image, but want to preach to Rwandans what they should do. There is also the issue of dealing with Rwanda’s exploding baby-boom.

Rwanda is already the most densely populated country in mainland sub-Saharan Africa. The population has risen fourfold over the past fifty years from an estimated 2.6 million in 1960 to more than 10 million. Now that child mortality is on the decline, health workers say that most Rwandans accept that their children will be healthier and better educated if they have fewer of them. “Twenty years ago, people had 10, eight, maybe even 15 children. Now the average here in Musha is five,” said Vestine Mukamunana, the nurse in charge of the Musha family planning  health centre.

“We would like all Rwandan couples to produce not more than three children,” said Agnes Binagwaho, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health. “We have very good signs that there is a decrease. We have multiplied by three our uptake of family planning” over the past four years, she said, noting that the country used to have a fertility rate of 5.3 percent. “Rwanda’s demographic growth is terrifying,” said Francois Byabarumwanzi, deputy vice president of the Liberal Party (PL), a partner in the ruling coalition. “When we build schools or health centres or hospitals, capacity is very quickly outstripped,” he told AFP in a recent interview.

In the years that followed the 1994 genocide, birth control was a taboo subject in Rwanda. It is only some four years ago since the government made a serious attempt to tackle galloping population growth.