President Kagame: President Malpass, thank you very much. Much appreciated. First of all, David, I’m happy to be here with you for this conversation.
David Malpass: What do you view as key steps that made it possible to expand broadband coverage and digital services coverage in Rwanda? Was it infrastructure? Was it the regulatory authorities that were improved? And also any advice for any other countries in Africa that are pushing forward with their digitalization?
President Kagame: Thank you. I will respond to that in general terms covering the broad question that you’ve asked.
Over the years, Africa’s digital transformation has been driven, in particular, by mobile financial services. Africa is in many ways a global pioneer in this sector. 80 percent of Africa’s population has a mobile phone, but not everyone has access to high-speed internet on a smartphone. Yet, broadband is key to unlocking digital transformation.
On our continent, a major challenge continues to be the insufficient reach of fibre optic cables in rural areas. This means that the majority of Africa’s population does not have access to high-speed internet, as you rightly mentioned, and therefore these are key areas to focus on in dealing with the matter.
In Rwanda, we have made significant investment in broadband infrastructure. We have been able to reach over 95% broadband coverage. If you look at our country’s health sector, for example, most of the facilities in Rwanda are connected to the internet. Just to give that example.
I should add that, therefore, our partnership with the World Bank has helped us tackle digital barriers and I wanted to take this opportunity to appreciate you, President Malpass, and the World Bank, for having been of great help in this.
David Malpass: In neighbouring countries and in Africa as a whole, we find in many countries that people are eager to use digital transactions. The Rwandan Franc is unique to Rwanda. How do you envision the importance of cross-border payment? Do you think it will evolve and is it important that there be a single currency? How do you think it will evolve?
President Kagame: It will evolve. There has been effort across the region, during the integration process of our region. For example, if you take the East African community, there has been harmonization of a number of things, including looking at how that can be served to the point that from one place to another, it’s like moving within a country in itself.
So the East African Community has more or less come closer together in a sense that it becomes one big country that brings the number of countries that are partner-states together. So, I think that is well underway. It’s being discussed. It’s looking at how we can even have monetary union. Under that, therefore, different harmonization activities and services will be undertaken to ease movement, and therefore the currencies within the payment system as it is.
David Malpass: As you think about the challenges within Rwanda, around the world, privacy is one of the issues that people consider. How do people store data safely and how do they avoid surveillance of their own data? What are your thoughts on that and this challenge around the world of having all information available to people? There are some countries that are really closing the internet to certain flows of information. What do you think about those issues?
President Kagame: First of all, one has to be aware of the risks involved with these new technologies. Therefore, people have to take steps to make sure that risks are mitigated, but at the same time, harness the productivity and efficiencies and all the values entailed in these new technologies.
People have to think about safety in all forms indeed, and be aware of the risks, of course. So, within our own system, for example in Rwanda, we officially launched recently in Kigali the first Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa, in partnership with the World Economic Forum. This helps us to have a full grasp of the issues, and therefore maximise on the benefits and also minimise on the risks, as well as in between allowing for the freedoms to do with the management of data and allowing people to freely reap benefits from that.
I think, it will be built on how people come together to discuss this, and put necessary laws in place. Not only just nationally, but rather regionally, and also learning from the best practices across the globe.
It’s not an easy thing, but I think it’s doable. It has to be driven by the right politics as well, so that people understand the benefits this is to people, but also allow freedoms to prevail within but at the same time manage these risks involved.
For example, last year Rwanda adopted a Personal Data Protection and Privacy Law and the Centre played an instrumental role in its development. So, there are these laws that are being developed to make sure that data protection is of essence, and it will also allow fostering of trust, which will in turn promote innovation and facilitate cross-border data flows.
DM: Do you have advice for other parts of Africa on things that you would urge them to do?
President Kagame: The more we expand, countries get together. The benefit of that is not just the big market that we are all interested in, which is of course extremely important. But it’s also how we can learn from each other, how we can benefit from each other, and work together to address these challenges.
Again, learning from the best practices that are out there. And all that is necessary is to be frank with each other, discuss the importance of governance, the importance of putting people’s interest really at the heart of what we are doing. Whether it is Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, DRC, as I mentioned, we want to make sure that the strength we have, the resources that are in abundance, benefit our citizens.
However, this potential will only be realized if there is adequate funding from investors and international financial institutions, particularly for early-stage ventures, because most of the efforts we see are by small, medium enterprises and there is always a lack of funding for them to be able to accelerate what they are doing. So, it’s a cross-section of things, really, that we have to be looking at. It’s governance, it’s connectivity, it’s funding. It’s making sure that this market reaches its full potential in what it can do for the people of our countries.
DM: How do you use the internet yourself in your daily activities?
President Kagame: Well, we have been learning a lot and not the least, recently during COVID. There are so many technologies and applications that help connect people with whatever they want, whatever it is. And that’s how people have even embraced working from home, with education delivered to homes as well, because kids were not able to go to school. Health services also benefitting from all these kinds of applications.
For me, personally, the most important thing is not only to be connected with people who we have to do work together, but also delivery of information that is required, or provision of that whenever you need it. So that life becomes as normal as possible, even with the absence of what we have been used to in daily work. We are on social media, we use e-mails, we use virtual technologies, to just get what you want to obtain and also do as much work as you can from any place. You reach whatever you want and wherever you want it. That’s what I can say.
And of course, it has provided our young people who are innovative this possibility to go out and address these problems that the society is facing and also off of that, make money and be able to do a number of things. I think we can’t complain but rather just be prepared for the next challenge.
DM: Can you describe the physical trade that’s going on and whether digitalization is going to help it advance?
President Kagame: I think there is no conflict really, between the physical aspects of that trade and digital aspects. But rather, there is complementarity and the more we digitize these processes, we find that things work more efficiently.
For example, in some parts of our borders with our neighbours, we have created one clearing house, where officials on one side of the border and on the opposite side are in one place and what is to be expected is very clear. Things come in and whatever information is required is delivered on the spot. And people move with ease as long as they just make sure that what was expected of them has been done and is cross-checked on the spot using technology.
People and businesses and services move very fast. So, it’s not either or. But rather, for me, it’s how the two can interact and work together as fast as possible. We are not going to have purely one process or purely the other. It’s how we can fuse — bring together the two and be able to move on.
I think we are beginning to see development in this area and good progress.
DM: That is very powerful, very well-stated. It brings people together and they don’t have to be the same. They just have to be able to interconnect. Earlier in the conversation you made the point that people are able to make money from this as well, which of course is one of the driving forces behind digitalization. It really increases productivity and money-making capacity and entrepreneurism, which are all so important to growth.
President Kagame, I want to thank you very warmly for the conversation this morning. It has been very enlightening, and I really appreciate you joining us and good luck in all of your pursuits. Thank you.
President Kagame: Thank you President Malpass. Thank you for your invitation. But above all, I want to thank you, I can’t do it enough, and the World Bank, for the very strong and beneficial partnership that has enabled us to invest in these critical infrastructures and skills that we need for continued digitization and development of skills within our people, so that in the end, everyone will have what to do and benefit from and it’s what we want to be driven to achieve.
Thank you so much.