Africa Gets Wired Web Access for All Rwandans

In Rwanda, among Africa's poorest countries, an American millionaire is developing one of the world's most modern wireless networks. The Rwandan government hopes the project will help make the country an African counterpart to the Indian high-tech city of Bangalore.


Greg Wyler at the office in Rwanda.

Greg Wyler at the office in Rwanda.

An SUV struggles up the steep serpentine curves of a bumpy road, dodging potholes as it passes banana groves interspersed with dilapidated huts. Barefoot children carry canisters of what passes for drinking water on their heads. The water comes from muddy puddles.

"Africa offers many investment opportunities," says an enthusiastic Greg Wyler, a boyish-looking man in his mid-thirties. "We simply have to bring the Internet into each of these huts, and the rest will fall into place." Wyler, an American entrepreneur, hopes to launch an "African Renaissance" with his project. His recipe for success is simple enough: free software, high-speed fiber-optic networks and unrestricted entrepreneurship.

The back seat of the weaving SUV is Wyler's temporary office. He sits there with a mobile phone in one hand and a notebook computer on his lap. He surfs the web as the vehicle weaves through slums on the outskirts of the Rwandan capital Kigali.

Wyler owes his ability to go online using a wireless card to one person: himself. A few months ago he launched one of the world's most state-of-the-art wireless networks in Rwanda, one of Africa's poorest countries. The network allows anyone with a wireless connection to log on to the Internet at any time. Wyler has also installed fiberoptic cables linking about 50 schools, a handful of hospitals and university institutes in the country. Using the new technology, village doctors can obtain advice on perplexing medical questions from experts at Harvard University, school principals can exchange lesson plans and textbook manuscripts and a vocational school in the small city of Gitarama can teach its students the skills needed to offer a much-needed service to European engineering firms: converting old, two-dimensional diagrams into 3-D models -- at prices well below the Indian competition.

With his company, Terracom, Wyler hopes to transform an entire country into a sort of open-air laboratory for a novel form of development aid. His idea is to use computer networks to empower more than eight million Rwandans to free themselves of poverty. It's a daring proposition, the idea that a society in which more than 90 percent of the population consists of families farming small plots of land can leapfrog into a knowledge-based society -- and that in only a few years' time.

Wyler wants to turn Rwanda into a regional internet hub. One element of his strategy involves a local factory which will assemble inexpensive South Korean mobile phones starting in 2007; they will retail for $30 apiece. And in January, Nicholas Negroponte, the legendary co-founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) near Boston, is expected to visit Rwanda in connection with his latest project, called "One Laptop per Child," which would provide inexpensive laptops to millions of children in developing countries. Some local patriots already dream of Rwanda becoming an "African Silicon Valley."

A high-tech, starving country

Skeptics think it's the height of cynicism to provide computers to children who have neither enough food nor access to clean drinking water. But Wyler sees the Internet as a necessary infrastructure, on the order of roads and power lines. Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard University, agrees: "Should Rwanda hold off on becoming computerized until all of its other problems have been solved? Some countries simply cannot afford the luxury of calmly taking one step at a time."

Wyler, for his part, is determined to prove to the rest of the world that everyone will benefit from the Terracom project. He jumps from the vehicle, mobile phone to his ear, and stands in front of a 50-meter (164-foot) transmission pole. Using ropes, technicians in red Terracom overalls are hoisting a giant directional antenna into place.

The men report a few problems, but Wyler insists that they will have to fix them alone. "It would be easy to fly in a few well-paid specialists from South Africa to build the network," he explains, "but if we want this to work in the long run, the Rwandans will have to do it themselves." All but three of his employees are Rwandan.


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