Digital and Personal Transformation in Rwanda

Digital and Personal Transformation in Rwanda

rwandahillsTen bags! Those are what we carried back from Rwanda, a small, mountainous country in east equatorial Africa last night. Why? The short answer is we have friends in Boise, Idaho with family and friends in Rwanda. We took 7 bags to Rwanda, but returned with 10. So much for traveling light!

While in Kigali, Rwanda I had the honor of speaking to a number of government ministries and most of the large banks about digital strategies. Not so much digital transformation though. How do you talk about digital transformation when digital is so new to Rwanda? That is the question Professor Michel Bezy challenged me with, when I was the guest lecturer at the Master of Computer Science program at Carnegie Mellon University Rwanda. Professor Bezy continued, here in Rwanda we are implementing digital for the first time. We have no legacy IT systems to hinder our progress. Wow! I think many IT departments in western industrialized countries right now would envy that situation. Most of the biggest IT problems in the west now are digitally transforming legacy systems. It’s like running a race while dragging an anchor. It is often the biggest obstacle a company faces.

Put yourself in a Rwandan’s shoes. How would you design and develop an IT environment differently if you started from a blank sheet, a white canvas like they are doing? It is a fun thought exercise.

For a small landlocked country like Rwanda, digital changes everything. The disadvantages of moving physical products in a landlocked country disappear with digital products and services.  The recent completion of 5,000 kilometers of fiber optics cable now makes mobile and Internet services available across much of Rwanda. Now to get electricity! Electricity is not yet available to 74 percent of the households, but they are improving. I am fascinated by the fact that more households have mobile phones (approximately 70%) than electricity (less than 30%). In fact, households with Internet nearly equal households with electricity. I watched as school children lined up at a school office to retrieve their parent’s mobile phones after school. They were all being charged in the school office because they had no electricity at home.

While traveling back and forth across beautiful Rwanda visiting schools, refugee camps and kids that we sponsor through Africa New Life,, I was keenly watching and pondering the challenges of living in a developing country where over 80% of the population are rural farmers. I observed the work. I spoke to farmers. It is a MASSIVE amount of work to feed a family. Basic tasks like getting water for your family to cook and clean often require herculean efforts in a country of a thousand hills, little running water, and that by necessity has made vertical farming an art form.

While watching the farmers it occurred to me how much work living can be. I recognized that digital transformation can significantly impact individuals in East Africa as well as industries in the west. The Financial Times’ David White gives this example of the painful work involved in just completing normal activities, “Registering a land transfer in an outlying village in Rwanda requires a number of journeys — to the nearest subdistrict office to get forms to fill in, which then have to be notarised, to a bank to pay the notary’s fees, then back to the government office, probably returning later to check the status of the process.”* All of this is likely done on foot or bike and will take all day. This process and many others today can all be done on mobile phones, which save days worth of precious time.

Just feeding a family takes all day. Getting water can take a half a day. Walking to town can take half a day. Walking to and from school can take half a day. It is life draining work to survive in the mountains far from schools, towns and markets. This point was burned into my consciousness over and over on this trip.

While speaking at a gathering of banks and financial services companies at the beautiful Serena Hotel in Kigali, a senior official of the Rwandan Tax Authority demonstrated to me how SMEs (small to medium size enterprises) can now register and pay their quarterly taxes all on basic mobile phones. It was very impressive. We don’t even have that capability in the USA! It can save hardworking entrepreneursthe need for endless travel.

Another innovation that I read about, but did not yet see at work, is the simple idea of the Hippo Roller, Using a simple design and elementary physics to roll water instead of carrying it (often on your head) saves so much energy and pain. See the video – Everyday I saw men, women and children excerting great effort carrying heavy loads of water miles to their homes. Making this easier and faster could free up calories and time for more economically productive activities. I hope these are as effective and useful as they appear. Although losing the handle on a steep climb could cause some angst I fear.

I left Rwanda pondering how hard it is to live as a rural farmer. I was impressed by the skills, ingenuity and innovation I witnessed just to feed, educate and house a family on the sides of these breath-taking mountains. Mountains, mountains everywhere!

Rwanda is looking at all solutions. They are pushing for farmers to seek economy of scales in agriculture. They are organizing small subsistence farmers into cooperatives so they can share the work and costs of farm equipment to improve their overall productivity and incomes.

Rwanda is small, and with a population of 12 million, it is the mostly densely packed country in Africa. However, with focused efforts over the past 5 years they have lifted over 1 million of their people out of poverty. They are now one of the fastest developing nations in the world, and all of this is happening just 22 years after the devastation caused by the genocide (one million people were murdered in a 90-day period). This is an inspirational example of true transformation.

More on Rwanda’s Development

World Bank

Forbes: The Surprising Story Behind The Worlds Fastest Developing Countries, by Robin Meyerhoff, Senior Director, Corporate Affairs, SAP,

*Rwanda’s Vision of an ICT-Enabled Economy,

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