Entrepreneur has quixotic goal of wiring Rwanda

Friday, August 18, 2006

Greg Wyler, an American tech entrepreneur, dreams of bringing the Internet to this troubled country. There are a few hurdles.
Excerpts: Greg Wyler, an American tech entrepreneur, dreams of bringing the Internet to this troubled country. There are a few hurdles. One is a battered communications tower atop this 14,787-foot volcanic peak. The air is too thin for helicopters to transport the several tons of equipment needed for repairs. Instead, it has to go by hand.

One recent morning, as mist covered the mountain, a group of 20 Rwandans lugged a 1,300-pound transformer with ropes and pulleys through deep mud. Rains had turned part of the trail into swamp. Mr. Wyler, 36 years old, was checking on their progress. He had recently hired a South African mountain-rescue company to advise on navigating the steeper sections.

“We are pushing the boundaries of technology here,” Mr. Wyler said, as the muck oozed up around his knees.

Mr. Wyler’s company, Terracom, expects the tower to start beaming services in the coming months, including, for the first time, cellphone coverage, Internet access and television. Rwanda is among the least-connected countries in the world. Mr. Wyler wants it to be the first completely wired African nation, with citizens paying $80 a month for Terracom’s Internet service.

Right now, Rwandans earn on average an annual income of about $200. Outside Rwanda’s major towns, few homes have power. Rwanda still bears the scars of the genocide that consumed this nation 12 years ago when ruling Hutus slaughtered more than 800,000 Tutsis in a 100-day period. The country’s telecom minister, Albert Butare, supports Mr. Wyler’s efforts but acknowledges the obvious.

“We’ve had to rebuild everything from nothing,” Mr. Butare says. “So when people need shelter, water and energy, they ask, ’Do I really need a computer?’”

On a recent break-neck tour by Land Cruiser of Terracom’s projects around the country, Mr. Wyler stopped at his northwest regional office where clothes salesman Edward Rugamba had come to get his phone line fixed.

The 33-year-old Mr. Rugamba mentioned he’d once tried to start an Internet cafe. It folded after customers complained about the poor connections. On a whim, Mr. Wyler took Mr. Rugamba to see one of Terracom’s new solar-powered towers, a journey that took an hour up a twisting, narrow dirt road. He wanted to persuade Mr. Rugamba to re-launch his cafe. “There are some damn good Java programmers out there!” Mr. Wyler shouted over the thick forest below.

On the ride back down the mountain, Mr. Wyler pitched his visitor the job of running regional sales for Terracom. The car zipped past barefoot children playing among goats.

Source: The Wall Street Journal (link opens in a new window)