Posted on July 25, 2009 · Posted in Personal

I’m writing this from the SAA lounge in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on my way to Kigali, Rwanda. It was worth the $20 to get into the lounge to watch the final 10 minutes of the Bloemfontein test match between the All Blacks and the, victorious, Springboks. I called it, Heinrich
Brussow was man of the match.  But before I get side-tracked, this post is actually about Rwanda (map).

I’m visiting Kigali for all of 48 hours to participate in a meeting involving, primarily, the Open Learning Exchange (OLE), OLE Rwanda, and
the Rwandan Ministry of Education. From my perspective, the meeting is about how they can most effectively use the content that Siyavula
has made available as part of their One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiatives. Truth be told, I knew very little about Rwanda, apart from
the horrific events that transpired 15 years ago, and wasn’t every excited about the trip.

Then I did a little research which has made me very very excited about the prospects for Rwanda. First I’d like to set the scene with
some of Rwanda’s vital statistics. The country has a population of just over 10 million people but is quite small (26 000 km2), making it the
most densely populated country in Africa. The perimeter of the country is 893km – for the South Africans that is less than a drive from Cape
Town to Kimberley. That’s the perimeter – the country is approximately 150km across at its widest point. So it’s a small country. 70% of the
country is literate, despite 60% living under the breadline ($1 per day).

So what is there to be excited about? Rwanda has committed itself to moving from a subsistence- to knowledge-based economy. So has South
Africa (at least moving from resource- to knowledge-based) but the thing that is exciting is they’re actually doing something about it
other than just making pronouncements.

Rwanda is committed to deploying fibre-optic infrastructure so that schools, universities, government offices and institutions have
direct access to fibre. Not only that, they’ve already laid more than 2000km (~2300km) of fibre! Now go back to my earlier comments
and think about what that really means given the size of Rwanda. If Rwanda put down a star-network of fibre emanating from Kigali then it would have 24 spokes with about 400km of fibre to spare, and each spoke would arrive at the border of the country less than 40km away from the adjacent spokes. You’d need to lay at most 20km of fibre to connect to a comprehensive backbone. I have no idea what their network actually looks like but no matter how you slice it, 2300km of fibre in a country that is 150km across is incredible.

The government intends to connect to the Seacom cable before the end of this year. If you have broadband in Rwanda in December this year, you may
have the best broadband in Africa! I’ll ask Steve Song to correct me on this one but you’d be MUCH better off than having broadband in South
Africa.

Just laying fibre doesn’t solve any of the countries problems but it opens up amazing opportunities for innovative solutions to solve those
problems. Fibre is the ultimate foundation for communications infrastructure. The Rwandan government teamed up with one of the most
wired countries in the world to roll out their fibre, Korea. Korean Telecom (KT) is doing a lot of the implementation.

Now all of sudden my meeting to discuss putting content on laptops in a Rwandan school is a lot more exciting. I’m starting to imagine all the things
I wish we could try in SA:

  • a class of African school children that can actually stream video from open courseware sites or teacher tube
  • run simulations online
  • communicate with learners elsewhere in Rwanda and the world
  • teachers video conferencing across the country forming lots of niche communities of practice
  • extensive, rapid development and deployment of OERs ensuring content used in Rwanda is as up to date as possible
  • effective use of national databases for learners and their assessments
  • on-demand one-on-one tutoring for learners online
  • learners really embracing content creation and their own creativity
  • and so much more!

Thats a far from comprehensive list and each item requires a little more than just fibre but none of them works well without fibre, something else that Rwanda probably tops the density list for.

Just browse the projects they’ve got listed on the Rwanda Information Technology Authority – they’re embracing e-government, e-health (OpenMRS for example), etc. and I think that they will leap frog many other developing countries. The full benefits will still take years to appear, as the benefits of education for example always do, but I am convinced that if the Rwandan government sees this through, and embraces openness and innovation, then the sky is the limit not only for education but for the country as a whole!

Despite always being a proud South African, I’ll be forever jealous that SA has spent years suppressing our telecoms industry and hasn’t adopted a comprehensive broadband strategy like Rwanda. The silver lining is that at least we’ll have a shining example in a year or two of what is actually possible. Lets just hope Rwanda manage to pull it off.

About the Author

Mark Horner is the CEO of Siyavula Education, a social enterprise working in the school sector in South Africa. While working as the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow for Open and Collaborative Resources, Mark was able to transform the Free High School Science Texts (FHSST) project, which he co-founded, into Siyavula Education. In this process, openly-licensed, collaboratively authored textbooks have been printed and distributed nationally in South Africa. Working at the intersection of community, openness and technology; Mark intends to leverage this success to make Siyavula an innovative, technology provider in education that works effectively as part of the education community to ensure better learning opportunities for all. A recent notable event being the delivery of Siyavula's textbooks over Mxit, the most popular mobile chat solution in South Africa. Mark has a PhD in physics from the University of Cape Town and conducted his research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California on the results from the STAR experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. His work is carried out in the belief that the liberation of information and support of education in South Africa will lead to a peaceful and prosperous future for all South Africans.