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Focus on Rwanda: Building a New Future

Africa’s Communications Revolution

PhotoEntrepreneur Henri Nyakarundi has invented a mobile solar kiosk which he hopes to bring mobile phone and wi-fi systems to the remotest village.

Africa is in the middle of a revolution.

Only a few years ago most of the continent appeared to be on the brink of economic and social collapse following decades of war, political upheaval and economic stagnation.

A major factor in this dismal picture was the continent’s antiquated colonial-era communications networks that needed tens of billions of investment dollars to upgrade, money governments did not have.

Enter the era of satellite communications, the Internet and mobile phones that in the past two decades have helped Africa to leapfrog into the modern era at a relatively modest cost.

Economies in many parts of the continent have now been showing strong growth and there are more than 600 million mobile phone users in the remotest villages among a continental population of some 1.1 billion people.

However, a major impediment to further progress remains the lack of stable electricity supplies, which cover only 5 percent of African space. A rural farmer or housewife may have a mobile phone, but they still find it difficult and expensive to charge their electronic devices and take full advantage of the array of new services available via the Internet.

Enter Rwandan entrepreneur Henri Nyakarundi and JICA. Nyakarundi has spent an initial $100,000 of his own money in developing a mobile solar kiosk that can recharge mobile phones and now offers an array of other services even in the most remote villages at a cost of around 10 U.S. cents.

Nyakarundi and other budding entrepreneurs have taken advantage of the k-Lab, an open innovation technology space in downtown Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, where they can meet regularly and develop their ideas and dreams.

Rwanda has been cited by the United Nations as one of the world’s most active investors in all levels of education, from primary schools to the latest IT innovations.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has been an active participant at all levels of the process, including providing a $100,000 initial investment for the k-Lab facilities and cooperating with private enterprise under the ICT Chamber of the Private Sector Federation.

Nyakarundi has developed several models of his mobile kiosk, doubling his personal investment, and is now poised to go big-time.

The kiosk itself is a simple plastic frame mounted on a steel chassis and wheels that allow it to be moved easily from place to place by one person and even hitched to a bicycle. It is powered by solar panels and does not need grid power. There are regular plug-in sockets and LED strips provide illumination at night. It can be controlled remotely via a built-in chip.

It is manufactured in China at a little over $1,000, but the inventor hopes that increased sales will significantly cut manufacturing costs.

It can charge multiple mobile phones at one time and Nyakarundi says advanced models will offer new accessories such as GPS, sensor technology and Wi-Fi Internet access, and then “these kiosks will become one-stop business centers for even the remotest village.”

Nyakarundi has signed a cooperation contract with a major African communications company, Airtel, and recently took delivery of 20 kiosks from China.

He hopes to establish a franchise-style system throughout Rwanda where locals, particularly women, the disabled and small-time businesspeople, will become partners.

They will undergo a three-day training period, and pay an initial fee of around $350 and a small annual fee, but the bulk of any profits will be generated by advertising.

Several kiosks are already successfully in operation and Nyakarundi believes Rwanda, one of Africa’s smallest countries, could absorb some 400-500 of them. He is now looking farther afield, to countries like Kenya and Nigeria where “the sky is the limit.”

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