About ten kilometers from Kigali, the future Innovation City will soon bring together a university complex, regional offices of large companies and an incubator.
Cranes overhang an anthill of workers who bustle between buildings under construction … The future Innovation City of Kigali is still only a vast construction site. Located about ten kilometers from the capital, this future Rwandan Silicon Valley should open its doors in 2018.
A future 2.0 technology hub
“We will bring together on the same site the different components of the knowledge economy and thus accelerate the growth of new technologies in Rwanda, enthuses Steve Mutabazi, the head of new technologies of the Rwandan government, who imagined the project for the Rwanda Development Bureau (RDB). The global giants of the sector want to come to Africa to develop products adapted to Africans. So we create the perfect environment for them to choose us. ”
This project is one of the elements of the government strategy to transform the agrarian economy of the country and to get it out of its excessive dependence on international aid. Rwanda is certainly still far from competing with its Kenyan neighbor, where the regional offices of global giants such as IBM, Microsoft and Google are located, but Kigali is giving itself the means to achieve its ambitions. Nearly 250 million euros will be injected into this “innovative city”, while 3,500 km of optical fiber have been drawn across the country and 4G covers 60% of the territory.
A university campus for student learning
At the heart of this system, a campus will bring together the future big heads of the continent, notably with branches from the American Carnegie Mellon University, the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences, the International Center for Theoretical Physics… “These knowledge laboratories will be surrounded by innovative companies, likely to create bridges between learning and the application of knowledge ”, anticipates Steve Mutabazi.
Several pharmaceutical companies, as well as the Ericsson group are already in the running. The government thus intends to duplicate what has been developed in the past in California, by creating an environment where incubators and businesses, human capital and financial resources coexist.
It is with this in mind that Kigali has just launched the Rwanda Innovation Fund, endowed with 100 million dollars (88 million euros). “We want to support innovative, viable companies ready to grow and develop internationally,” explains the specialist in new technologies. More than $ 30 million have already been secured.
Steve Mutabazi’s dreams have already taken shape in Kigali. In 2011, a branch of Carnegie Mellon University, one of the best engineering schools in the world, moved to the fourth and fifth floors of the Telecom House, in the embassy district – temporary premises, pending those of the future campus.
More than 300 students, coming from 27 African countries, frequent these premises. “We are the only world-class university to have a campus in Africa,” explains Michel Bézy, deputy director of the university. Our graduates are the African elite of tomorrow. ”
The future African elite
The geeks of Kigali also met at the FabLab (digital manufacturing laboratory), created less than a year ago according to the model developed by the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the United States.
Prototypes of cardboard drones are lying around in a corner of the room. “None of them can fly more than a few feet,” Lambert smiles. Sitting behind a desk cluttered with electronic components and flashing diodes, the engineer remains confident: “I’m building a device to spread pesticides in hard-to-reach areas of the country,” he explains.
On the same floor is the KLab, the country’s first start-up incubator. In exchange for a small contribution, budding entrepreneurs benefit from a very high-speed internet connection, can chat with experts from around the world and even meet potential investors. Since 2012, hundreds of young people have walked on the brightly colored carpet in the hall.
Some observers believe it little
Although a few nuggets have stood out, such as TorQue and AC Group, the results are still rarely to be seen. Many observers believe that the place now looks more like a showcase for government glory than a breeding ground for talent.
“We must not lie to each other, the ecosystem suitable for bringing out what could look like Silicon Valley does not exist,” Michel Bézy says. And the deputy director of the university enumerated the black spots, difficult to overcome in the medium term: insufficient level of education, stammering industry, low funding, omnipresence of the government, lack of researchers … But Rwanda is determined to try to put all the chances on his side.