Since 1998, Rwanda has sought to promote ICT as a crucial component of its development and poverty reduction strategy. Rwanda’s labour force in the early 2000s was approximately 88% agrarian and characterised by subsistence agriculture, where farmers grow only enough food to meet their needs and those of their family. In 2000, the Government of Rwanda began implementing the Rwandan ICT for Development (ICT4D) strategy, also known as the National Information Communications Infrastructure (NICI), which was eventually streamlined as the principal policy instrument of Vision 2020 — a 20-year development strategy with six main pillars: (1) good governance and an efficient state; (2) skilled human capital; (3) a vibrant private sector; (4) infrastructure development; (5) productive agriculture, and; (6) regional and international economic integration. NICI and Vision 2020 aimed to turn the largely agrarian country into a knowledge-based middle-income country by 2020, while leapfrogging the interim stages of industrialisation.
These plans have centred internet access as a means for greater economic development. Through NICI’s three phases — targeting the institutional, legal and regulatory ICT frameworks and liberalising the telecoms market in Phase I; enhancing ICT infrastructure through the establishment of national data centres for centralised data storage and management in Phase II; and expanding service delivery in Phase III, with a focus on skills development as well as private and community development in that final stage (2016-2020) — as well as Vision 2020 as a whole, ICTs have been leveraged in all sectors of the Rwandan economy.
Critical services, from e-government services to tax services offered by the Rwanda Revenue Authority to help small and medium businesses to register their businesses and compute taxes digitally, were in operation by 2014. However, not everyone had access to the opportunities and services available online. In March 2016, the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA) estimated that the internet penetration rate stood at just 33% of the population.
Launched in 2017, Rwanda’s Digital Ambassadors Programme (R-DAP) is a programme led by the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications (MITEC), in partnership with the Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT) and the World Economic Forum’s Internet for All Northern Corridor initiative, designed to bring five million citizens online through hands-on, community-based digital literacy training. Embodying a ‘triple-win’ approach, R-DAP simultaneously targets internet access, skills training, and employment. Through the programme, 5,000 young Rwandans, of which 50% are young women and girls, are employed by R-DAP as digital skills trainers to teach citizens how to use mobile phone applications and other ICTs.
An evaluation of the programme’s pilot launch highlighted many of the barriers that women face with regard to ICTs, including accessibility, affordability, skills, and safety considerations. In Rwanda specifically, internet access was hindered by price constraints posed by the prohibitive costs of data bundles and devices — particularly for women in rural areas. Both a lack of relevant local content and gender-based socio-cultural challenges stood in the way of women’s access to R-DAP training. The findings of the pilot programme were taken into account through the recalibration of the programme, and resulted in the creation of female-only Citizen Digital Community Clubs. Conducted with the support of Mozilla and the Girl Effect, the R-DAP’s Citizen Digital Community Clubs provided a safe space for women to expand skills, engage in peer-to-peer learning, and expand their personal and professional networks.
As of December 2019, R-DAP had provided digital skills training to 41,980 women, youth, and rural populations across 12 districts. An impact assessment reported that 87% of those trained reported increased incomes, and use of e-government services increased by 129%. Of those trained, 75% of the women reported increased determination and interest to use technology, while 58% reported improved family incomes. For the Digital Ambassadors themselves, 90% reported feeling greater enthusiasm and ability to contribute to the growth of their communities.
As of March 2020, RURA estimates Rwanda’s internet penetration rate to be 62.9% — double the figure from 2016. Rwanda has transformed into a digital hub for the region, with e-government services and over 90% 4G coverage in 2018, as well as a pioneer in exploring emerging technologies, such as drone delivery for urgent supplies. In a digital economy, equitable and meaningful access to ICTs is crucial to ensure that no one is left behind. Digital literacy in Rwanda is therefore crucial not only on the basis of economic development, but also to enable access to core public services and reduce inequality. Access, coupled with the digital literacy skills needed to make full use of technology’s potential, is key to making greater progress on Sustainable Development Goals 5, 8, 10, and 17 — gender equality, decent work and economic growth, reduced inequalities, and partnership for sustainable development.
DAP has changed the lives of several Rwandans. It has not only empowered young people that have found in the ambassador role an opportunity to develop their skills, increase their confidence in the use of technology, and create an impact in their communities. It has also created opportunities for people that have never sought a job online and offered access to key information for businesses. Job fair participants in Kigali were able to create their CV with the support of the ambassadors and upload it to LinkedIn to search for job opportunities. The programme’s strong emphasis on the inclusion of women and girls helps confront the country’s digital gender gap.
The programme has also encountered some limitations, such as access to mobile network and affordability. Data is still too expensive for many citizens: Rwanda has not reached the standard of 1GB of data for 2% of average monthly income, and owning a device represents another barrier to access. However, from these limitations, some opportunities have arisen: many ambassadors share their devices within the community, and the government has established some centres where the population has access to computers to acquire the desired digital skills. Combining access and skills programming offers a comprehensive approach to greater connectivity and internet adoption.