The Rwandan government wants to use advanced information communication technologies, or ICTs, to transform its traditionally agricultural society into what has been dubbed "the Singapore of Africa". Pilot projects to hook schools and clinics up to the internet are already underway, and there is a growing number of telecenters that enable rural people to access the Internet. Cathy Majtenyi reports from Rwanda on the impact of initiatives taken so far and future ICT development plans.
Traditional healer Musa Kayairanga spent two hours a day for three months learning how to use the internet.
At 65, he now regularly corresponds with French-speaking traditional healers as far away as Canada.
He says the benefits of Internet research have had a big impact on his business.
"I have been able to advertise my work to people in Kampala [Uganda], to people in Bujumbura [Burundi] and to people in Canada. I have been exchanging experiences with them and they now know me. Also, I have improved my knowledge of herbs and trees that I have been using to treat people," Kayairanga said.
Kayairanga accesses the Internet at the Nyamata Telecenter, one of a dozen such community-based facilities in Rwanda's countryside.
Paul Barera is the founder of Nyamata Telecenter, and also chairman of the Rwanda Telecenter Network.
"In a telecenter, you can also introduce community development programs, not only Internet, not only ICT training," Barera said. "You can also provide development programs to the community. In a telecenter you are supposed also to help the community how to access useful information that the community can use to develop themselves."
Setting up telecenters in Rwanda's rural areas is one of many initiatives aimed at providing all Rwandans access to information communication technology, or ICTs.
It is part of a $65 million plan to transform Rwanda from a largely agricultural-based society, into a knowledge-based one by the year 2020.
Patrick Nyirishema is deputy executive director of the Rwanda Information Technology Authority.
"We are trying to be the hub within this continent. We are trying to be a services hub, we are trying to be a point of reference for the other countries on the continent in terms of how a third-world country can take itself from the state that most people in the world know Rwanda was in 1994, to a middle-income status country by the year 2020. That really is what Singapore has done," Nyirishema said.
The first step is to expand broadband infrastructure to all of Rwanda's 30 districts.
Then, schools, clinics, telecenters, and other institutions in all reaches of Rwanda can be connected to the ICT infrastructure for Internet access.
Almost 20 percent of Rwanda's 500 plus secondary schools are already connected to the internet. The plan is to also hook up the country's more than 1,000 primary schools.
Green Hills Academy in Kigali has gone a step further. The prestigious primary and secondary institution is one of 10 schools across the country that has installed the Geographical Information Systems program, or GIS, into its computers. Students gain detailed knowledge of all the world's countries and regions at the click of a button.
Meanwhile, select health clinics across Rwanda are transmitting and receiving information on HIV/AIDS treatment thorough a network called TRACnet.
Cell phones or computers are equipped with special software developed by Voxiva Inc. Healthcare workers enter data on
HIV/AIDS patients, drug stocks, and other information, and transmit this to health officials in Rwanda's capital, Kigali.
At the Nzige Health Center, HIV counselor Jean Luc Hassan says the system is helping patients. "This has saved me a lot of time. I used to travel from here to Kigali and while I was gone, there was no one to attend to the patients. By using the cell phone, I save travel time and money and can attend to the patients," Hassan said.
Rwanda faces some major challenges in implementing its ICT plans. Almost all of Rwanda's people live in rural areas, which is largely without the necessary infrastructure.
Less than 10 percent of Rwandans have access to electricity.
The huge jump in the number of cell phone subscribers has jammed mobile networks, making them unreliable at times.
Yet despite these obstacles, the government is pushing ahead with its vision of transforming the country into a continental ICT hub.