The ambitious initiative, spearheaded by the ’Connect Rwanda’ initiative, began in 2019 with the distribution of smartphones to underprivileged families, ensuring that Rwandans can harness the power of the 4G internet infrastructure that now covers 97% of the country.
The Minister of ICT and Innovation, Paula Ingabire, highlighted the government’s commitment to bridge the digital divide during her address at the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2024 on January 17, 2024.
She revealed that over 24,000 mobile phones were distributed in the first week of the ’Connect Rwanda’ initiative, with an average of 8,000 phones handed out daily. Additionally, the ’Make Make’ program was introduced, enabling citizens to acquire smartphones through affordable installment payments.
Collaborating with the South Korean government, Rwanda’s Ministry of ICT and Innovation played a pivotal role in establishing 4G internet coverage, reaching an impressive 97% of the population.
However, despite this extensive coverage, only 1,126,276 Rwandans possessed smartphones, according to the 2022 census. Minister Ingabire acknowledged the challenges, citing the high cost of smartphones and a lack of technological knowledge as barriers to widespread adoption.
To address these issues, Rwanda has implemented various programs, including technology skills training in rural areas, the National AI Policy and Strategy, service digitization, partnerships, and the Digital Ambassadors program.
Ingabire emphasized the importance of tackling both cost and knowledge barriers, stating, "The ownership of these phones has reached 23%, and the biggest problem for the majority of the population is that they are expensive."
Ingabire elaborated on the innovative solutions being implemented, including a partnership with a telecommunications company to offer a payment plan for smartphones.
For just $16, individuals can acquire a smartphone, with an additional $1 providing 1GB of internet daily for a month. By December 2023, this initiative had already reached 52,558 Rwandans, putting the nation on track to achieve its goal of widespread technological access.
President Kagame’s meeting with the CEO of Bharti Company on January 17, 2024, revealed plans to bring thousands of smartphones and internet access to Rwandans. The partnership between Airtel Rwanda and Netflix founder Reed Hastings Jr. further underscores the commitment to technological advancement.
When asked about Rwanda’s approach to partnerships and collaborations, Minister Ingabire emphasized the importance of not picking sides but rather aligning with entities that meet the nation’s specific needs. She cited successful collaborations with countries like Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, focusing on mutual benefits and added value.
As Rwanda moves forward, the vision of every citizen having access to the internet within the next three years seems increasingly achievable, marking a significant step towards a more digitally connected and empowered nation.