Electricity is problematic for many of Rwanda's schools. The wooden desks and chairs are worn. The teachers earn less than $100 a month. But, in a growing number of classrooms, children eagerly pound away on bright, new, white-and-green laptop computers.
The $181 computers were developed by One Laptop Per Child, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization that has distributed more than 2 million around the world and constantly labors to make them cheaper, more durable and more appropriate for use in primitive conditions. They are smaller and less powerful than commercial laptops, designed specifically for children's educational needs. Many run on solar power, and the organization hopes to have a crank-up model in circulation soon.
Rwanda's government plans to put the devices in 100,000 children's hands by the middle of this year and distribute the computers to half of the nation's 2.5 million schoolchildren by the middle of 2012. The distribution is one aspect of President Paul Kagame's campaign to carry his poverty-stricken nation of 10 million — where per capita income is less than $2 a day — to a future of high-tech prosperity.
To enable the students to access the Internet, Kagame plans to turn the capital city of Kigali into a Wi-Fi hot spot and to stretch fiber-optic cable across the rest of the country. He hopes the computers will inspire some of the users to become some of the 50,000 computer programmers he wants to train by 2020.
Some activists and development specialists argue that Rwanda could put that computer money to better use. Teddy Ruge is co-founder of Project Diaspora, which encourages African expatriates to return home and help with economic development. He dismissed the computer distribution as “yet another top-down solution dumped on us. We are forced yet again to adapt because someone out there thought it was a great idea.”
But Seymour Papert — a South African mathematician and education and technology theorist who helped found MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory — says computers can teach children how to learn and thus transform their lives. Children's reactions to the laptops lend credence to Papert's contention.
“I love using it,” 12-year-old Oliver Niyomwungeri said at Kigali's Groupe Scholaire Kagugu school. “I want to teach my younger sister how to use it.”
Rwanda — a tiny, landlocked country in Africa's Great Lakes region — attracts tourists to its beautiful mountains and the famous gorillas that live there. But it lay in ruins in 1994 after a state-orchestrated genocide killed an estimated 800,000. Since then, it has earned the nickname “the Singapore of Africa” because of its rapid economic growth — and because of its authoritarian president's focus on economic development.
Kagame wants to create a technology- and services-based economy to rival the Asia's fast-developing nations and triple the country's income by 2020. To do that, he is striving to promote science within Rwanda, accepting foreign aid he believes is appropriate, adopting free-market policies and offering business incentives.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame wants to create a technology- and service-based economy to rival Asia's fast-developing nations and triple his country's income by 2020. (AFP/Getty Images/Andreas Solaro)
“What we seek to achieve in Rwanda and in Africa is what is taken for granted here,” Kagame said in a speech in the United States, “a continuous expansion of knowledge and innovation that leads to prosperity through a triangular relationship between government, business and academia.”
World Bank Science and Technology Program Coordinator Alfred Watkins gives Rwanda high marks for beginning to address the bank's recommendations that the country needs to acquire “all levels of technology and skills — ranging from sophisticated scientists to engineers and technical and vocational workers.”
“Research institutes that were moribund or close to it are lively and focused on problems that are directly relevant to the problems of that country,” Watkins says. “They've built up their capacity to use scientific knowledge that's fairly commonplace around the world and apply it to solving African problems.”
Rwanda has invested in education at all levels. With help from the Japan International Cooperation Agency it has established a program to educate 100,000 secondary-school science teachers. Last year, 3,000 science teachers participated in an 11-day workshop designed to strengthen their capabilities. The government has begun encouraging girls and young women to study science and technology in secondary school and college. With funding from the African Development Bank, based in Tunisia, 100 women a year will receive scholarships to study science and technology at Rwanda's colleges; they receive six months of preparatory training before they enroll. In conjunction with the United Kingdom Telecommunications Academy, Rwandan educational institutions offer fiber-optics training to computer and telecommunications engineers.
Kagame has set a goal of investing 5 percent of Rwanda's gross domestic product in science and technology by 2012. To attract high-tech companies, Rwanda offers a free location to information technology (IT) firms and allows IT products to be imported tax-free.
While still extremely poor, Rwanda is reaping benefits from its science, education and development policies. Improved crop yields have transformed Rwanda from a food importer to a food exporter. Nearly all primary-age children attend free schools, and the literacy rate has increased from 58 percent to 70 percent in two decades. Rwanda's economy grew 10 percent annually from 1995 to 2005, then doubled in the next five years. Since 2005, young expatriates have been returning to take newly created jobs or to establish their own businesses. And the country's leadership has been reaping international praise.
“We have been inspired by the nation's commitment to science, technology and science education to improve the lives of the Rwandan people,” American Association for the Advancement of Science CEO Alan Leshner said. “Rwanda has emerged as a model, not only in Africa, but for developing nations around the world.”
— Tom Price