How Rwanda's Government Enables Innovation

Together with California-based startup Zipline, the government of Rwanda began their national drone delivery program. A first the world over.

While addressing an audience of local tech enthusiasts, in October, President Paul Kagame sent the inaugural flight from a tablet-controlled launcher at a drone-port in Rwanda’s Muhanga district. It would seem that in the last twenty years, Rwanda has made becoming an international technology hub a national priority. Their partnerships in Silicon Valley and Israel display the potential of African nations to dictate the future of technology for the entire planet.

The drones now make up to one hundred and fifty daily deliveries of goods including medical supplies, primarily blood, and vaccines, to 21 locations across Rwanda. The small craft lift-off from a customized “drone-nest,” drop their loads by parachute, then return to their base — guided digitally by Zipline’s navigation system connected to Rwanda’s 3G network.
Zipline co-founder Keller Rinaudo notes there have been a number of drone delivery demonstrations across the world, but nothing like the Rwanda operation.

“We’re operating a commercial service at a national scale, with national regulatory approval and a customer that is paying us to do it on a daily basis.”
Rinaudo and his former Harvard classmate Will Hetzler formed the company after identifying a market for delivering essential medical products cheaper and faster, particularly to remote areas and regions with challenged infrastructure. He estimates the value of urgent health logistics in Africa as north of $1 billion. In Rwanda, Zipline is paid per delivery by the government. The company’s vision is to expand its operations from Rwanda to other African nations. The company has managed to raise $19 million in venture capital from investors including Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, and Subtraction Capital. The company tests its drones, which are custom designed by robotics engineers, at a private facility outside of San Francisco.

Former Economist Africa correspondent and the founder of Redline Drones, Jonathan Ledgard can be thanked for having pioneered the initiative that brought Zipline’s Rinaudo from a trip to Tanzania, to a referral of Rwanda’s president in Kigali.

“He knew Kagame pretty well and relayed Rwanda’s vision for how this technology could make an impact in the country. We found Rwanda really forward-looking, innovative, and the government was already making big investments in technology and healthcare. It seemed like a natural place…to launch something new,”

-Rinaudo

The government of Rwanda has supported the development of drone operating systems in the country. In the case of Zipline, it granted land and offered cooperation with its Ministries of Health, Defense, and Civil Aviation Authority. This aligned with the country’s commitment to fostering ICT models to improve the living standards of its people.

Throughout Africa’s shift away from economic disconnection to integration with the global economy and technologic advancement, Rwanda has been a standout. The country has adopted e-government service initiatives, aggressively courted partnerships with international investors, and significantly reformed its private sector.
Rwanda, Africa’s highest ranked country on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business. With a ranking of 54, it comes well ahead of countries such as Chile or Luxembourg. A very interesting article on taking digital business international and which countries are favourable/unfavourable for starting a business can be found here.

“Rwanda is a start-up country. Our development strategy has been clear from the beginning that ICT would be one of the foundations of our transformation. We should end up with a constellation, where there are many tech hubs across the region. But in any constellation, not all stars have the same brilliance. My job is to make sure that Kigali and Rwanda become the most brilliant, but not by any means the only star in the group.”

-Jean Philbert Nsengimana Minister of Youth and ICT.

The country’s Vision 2020 Program launched President Kagame in 2000 with goals of transitioning Rwanda to a “knowledge-based…middle-income country” with “science and technology” as a “cross-cutting influence” to business and government. Easily the most fundamental step toward this end was the establishment of a ministry devoted specifically to IT. Kenya and Rwanda’s formation of ICT authorities and Africa’s emerging technology movement have prompted other governments, such as Nigeria, Ghana, and Tanzania, to flesh out more defined national technology strategies.

Nsengimana welcomes increased national competition on the continent to foster innovation. He believes it is “the right thing to do for all African countries” noting Rwanda’s desire to be on top. Rwanda is posting some shining ICT achievements. The country should soon reach 40 percent internet penetration, up from less than 10 percent three years ago, according to government statistics.

The improvement derives largely from a national investment of over $100 million in a 4,500-kilometer fiber optic network. Rwanda is rolling out its 4G LTE program nationwide and is the highest ranked African country on the Alliance for Affordable Internet’s Affordability Index.. Rwanda’s education has long since embraced technology at the primary school and university level through its One Laptop Per Child program and partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, which has created a Kigali campus offering advanced degree programs in computer science and IT. The country is manufacturing laptops for Argentine hardware maker Positivo BGH through its Kigali Special Economic Zone. It is hosting a tech-driven African Smart Cities Initiative with partner Ericsson. The $100 million Rwanda Innovation Fund to invest in early stage tech startups. “Leading on drones is just one example. We’re also looking to lead in other cutting edge technologies such as blockchain and others,” said Minister Nsengimana.

In the case of drone delivery, Rwanda’s progressive ICT stance may have already produced an innovation model with advanced economy impact.

As TechCrunch reported, Zipline’s Rwanda program gained the attention of the White House’s UAV initiative, which has tapped the startup to test drone delivery of medical supplies to remote U.S. communities.

“We have the U.S. Secretary of Transportation visiting our test facilities,” said Zipline CEO Rinaudo. “With what we’ve done in Rwanda just the last month there’s been a big shift in terms of what’s possible, especially in the developed world.”