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Rwanda embraced tech in recent years. Did it help it deal with COVID-19?

Paula Ingabire, the country's minister of ICT and innovation, explains how she's rethought the use of existing tech investment to help keep the country safe during the pandemic.

Paula Ingabire

"It has been really [about] trying to understand the different technologies out there that we can leverage," says Paula Ingabire, Rwanda's minister of ICT and innovation.

Photo: Paula Ingabire

In the next decade, Rwanda's urban population is expected to triple. The pandemic has given Paula Ingabire, the country's minister of ICT and innovation, an unexpected way to stress test the country's tech infrastructure for that kind of growth.

Ingabire has held the country's top government tech job since 2018 and has prioritized growing Rwanda's connectivity, integrating technology into smart communities and working with the private sector to boost local innovation projects. When the pandemic hit, the government had to work out how to do the best by its citizens despite the inequity of tech adoption across the country, and figure out how it could make best use of the technology that was already out there.

"It has been really [about] trying to understand the different technologies out there that we can leverage," she told Protocol. "Some have been in use, but at a very small scale, and now, there is an opportunity to scale the use of these technologies."

In an interview with Protocol, Ingabire described Rwanda's tech-led pandemic response, the plans to advance smart cities across the country and the impacts of connectivity infrastructure on the economy.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

For months, we've heard private sector executives point to the pandemic's impact on the acceleration of digital transformation. In Rwanda's public sector, have you felt that same effect, and where has it happened most significantly?

Looking at businesses across the country — even the government more specifically — we were all trying to minimize the disruption that came with the pandemic through remote working tools, which wouldn't have been possible if it hadn't been for those past investments in our connectivity infrastructure. But even the investments to push for a cashless economy [and to] put in place some of that foundational digital payment infrastructure were very helpful in rallying the entire Rwandan population to embrace digital payment channels as a means reducing the spread of COVID-19.

On the health front, we're using robots to help our frontline health workers with some of the mundane work, like taking temperature for large-scale areas where we have many people moving in and out. We were using drones to deliver blood as well as other medical products to the different areas within the country, but when the pandemic hit, we started to rethink: What else could we use them for? They were used as a channel through which we would monitor how the different measures are being enforced [and disseminate] messages [about those] measures to densely-populated areas. [Finally], we've been using AI models to predict and map the high-risk areas, and that helped us in understanding what level of preparedness was needed across the country.

To draw a consumer parallel to the repurposing of drones, in the U.S. we've seen things like QR codes make a resurgence — older tech that's found new footing in the changed environment. Beyond drones, has Rwanda found other ways to adapt technology it already had during the response?

To a large extent, it's really seeing what other opportunities we [could have] been using [technology] for. We're putting in place an app that allows people to register any symptoms they may have as opposed to waiting to go to the nearest healthcare facility. Leveraging the mobile technology and thinking about the fact that many of our populations, especially in the rural areas, may have basic smartphones, we had to think about how we use the USSD technology to support that effort of self-screening — which would then feed into the data that our community health workers would need to be able to reach out to these people and have them tested.

So it has been really [about] trying to understand the different technologies out there that we can leverage. Some have been in use, but at a very small scale, and now, there is an opportunity to scale the use of these technologies.

On the connectivity front, 4G coverage numbers in Rwanda are strong. What impact does that coverage have beyond 2020? And how are you thinking about the next stage of kind of connectivity as 5G is rolled out?

When it comes to 3G, we have over 97% coverage, and when it comes to 4G, it's around 98% coverage. I think coverage is one thing. The other thing is access and adoption. What has [been] the silver lining of the pandemic is that it has [allowed] us to fast-track some of the existing pipeline initiatives that were geared towards [pushing] for adoption and accessibility of connectivity solutions. It's one thing to have coverage, but if people don't have the devices that will help them access and make use of this connectivity infrastructure, you start to see adoption being lower and not commensurate to the efforts and investments that have been made in walling out this infrastructure.

Is that investment in connectivity then focused around cities and urban populations where the smartphone penetration is highest?

Our focus, even with our smart city master plan, is not just on cities. We like to look at it as smart cities and communities because we're looking at equitable and inclusive growth. So while the demand in cities may be there [and] the purchasing power is there, we are also focused on how we ensure that the same investments are being made in the rural areas.

From a business perspective, many of our private sector partners will be focusing on those communities where the purchasing power is, so government has to meet them halfway to say, where does it not make sense for a private investment? And how can government put some skin in the game to ensure that there's inclusive deployment of infrastructure [and] inclusive accessibility of services and literacy, especially in the rural areas?

Digging into the plans for those smart communities, what are the guidelines that you're looking at? And are there places around the globe that you're using as bellwethers for success as you implement Rwanda's plan?

Some of the pillars that we're focused on are how do we deliver smart and efficient services? How do we promote localized innovation for social and economic development? But also, how do we promote smart governance and planning? Those three key thematic areas are what drive the benchmarking that we're doing across the world. But also, we're focused on what makes sense for Rwanda. When we look at cities, our smart mobility solutions have been low hanging fruit in terms of thinking about improving commuter experience, thinking about the cashless economy and ensuring that we have a more intelligent transport system across the country.

Another aspect that is still central to our cities is smart waste collection. Today, when you go around the city of Kigali, for example, we have different companies that collect waste from homes and dispose of it. We've been [building] a system that allows for the integration of IOT devices that will allow these companies to know which communities are ready for waste collection. Once that is done, that'll allow us to go beyond just the waste collection aspect, but also think, what can we generate? Can we generate manure? Can we generate energy? [We're] thinking about a command control system that allows us to have a dashboard that gives real-time data on how these various solutions that we're already deploying help to contribute to the broader vision of using technology and data to make better decisions that will improve the quality of life.

The flip side to any conversation about advances in data collection or IOT integration is privacy. It's been the subject of legislation in the EU and the U.S. recently. How are you approaching privacy as you scale these tech-driven solutions?

About a month ago, we finished putting in place our data protection and privacy law that is going to parliament for enactment. But we're also looking to understand the boundaries that we're setting.

On one hand, you want to be able to have access to data that will allow you to develop localized innovation. Those innovations are definitely going to require a wealth of data sets. How do we do it in a way that is not infringing on the privacy of personalized data? It could be that we are going to aggregate data sets and share them with our different innovators without necessarily giving them the kind of data sets that can infringe on privacy rights. That is what our national data protection and privacy regulations are covering. And we're hopeful.

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