Ethan Arpi

Installing Wireless Internet in Rwanda

terraWhen Greg Whyler, an American tech entrepreneur, purchased Rwandatel, Rwanda’s government owned telecom monopoly, he found that his new company paid 12 employees ?whose sole job was to play on the company soccer team.?? Now that’s pretty cool!? Of course Greg Whyler didn?t think so.? By spending upwards of $35 million on telecommunications in Rwanda, Whyler has made a serious investment in a nation still suffering from the trauma of its infamously brutal civil war.? While many people in Rwanda believe that coffee and export oriented development are the ticket to economic prosperity, Whyler has placed his faith in the internet, arguing that fiber optics will save Rwanda from its woes and power economic growth in the region.

So far, Whyler has been fighting an uphill battle.? Two years ago, Terracom, his telecommunications company, laid 100 miles of fiber optic cables, connecting Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, to the university city of Butare, Rwanda’s second biggest city.? To date, Terracom has installed about 220 miles of fiber optic cables and has brought broadband services to more than 150 locations.? In the next two years, Whyler hopes to install another 700 miles of fiber optics. But even as the infrastructure continues to take root, Whyler has been unable to overcome one basic problem: his service costs about $60 per month when the average annual income in Rwanda is a scant $200.But to his credit, Whyler has made considerable gains.? When he first entered the market, there were only 22 broad band connections in the entire country, each costing more than a thousand dollars.? According to the Wall Street Journal, Whyler is not too concerned about the high prices, explaining that ?he is focusing on access first, profits later. He’s starting with schools, institutions, and small businesses such as coffee cooperatives hoping to sell to U.S. coffee houses. Eventually, he’ll get to individual consumers.? As with most enterprises that target the base of the economic pyramid, Terracom is trying to succeed by attracting large swaths of the market, ?offsetting the low margins with volume.?

Already, internet cafes have popped up across the country, charging their users 20 cents for every 15 minutes of access.? The government has responded in kind, promoting a plan called Vision 2020, which strives to lift Rwandans out of poverty by promoting a ?knowledge-based economy,? grounded in telecommunications.

All in all, Terrecom has made tremendous strides, even if it still has a long way to go.? As Albert Butare, Rwanda’s telecommunications minister, pointed out, “We’ve had to rebuild everything from nothing,” referring to the destruction left over from the genocide.? ?So when people need shelter, water and energy, they ask, ’Do I really need a computer?’”? And maybe he’s right.? But there is one thing for sure: they definitely need a soccer team.