Call to increase ICT research funding at universities

Rwandan universities have called for extensive funding to research how information and communications technology (ICT), including mobile phones and the internet, could be leveraged to benefit ordinary users in various sectors.

Speaking to World University News at the eLearning Africa conference in Kigali, which was part of the 13th International Conference & Exhibition on ICT for Education, Training and Skills Development, Rwandan Minister of Education Dr Eugene Mutimura said the country had embarked on a journey from being land-locked to land-linked, and universities were expected to contribute heavily to these advances in terms of research.

He added that Rwanda wanted to become the African ICT hub and looked at ICT-driven institutions, especially universities, to increase scale at which the Internet of Things (IoT) could contribute to social and economic development.

ICT infrastructure

“We are trying our best to provide the latest ICT infrastructure at universities, as a key enabler. We have several programmes running at different universities and other incubation centres, with projects such as ‘FinTech’ – where finance and technology meet – and several of our lecturers are researching how mobile money transfers and technology could be enhanced,” he said.

Researchers were being tasked with creating IT-embedded solutions to streamline services across various fields such as agriculture, tourism, environment and trade, he added.

“Mobile money technology is taking shape in Rwanda,” Mutimura said, and the most important element is “how digital technology helps us revolutionise what we are doing already in terms of setting up the right industries, so we can be competent in different sectors”.

He added that ICT-enabled programmes and projects, with the support of institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University, were expected to produce engineers trained in the African context and make a transformative impact on both Rwandan communities and the world.

More government funding needed

According to Professor Egide Gahima Karuranga, a visiting lecturer at the University of Rwanda and vice-chancellor at the University of Kibungo, the Rwandan government is committed to the promotion of ICT as a key enabler in social economic development, but has been slow to fund ICT-based research on a large scale.

“We will need to differentiate between strategies and operation when you reach the operation level, which is when you start to think of applying techniques. Reaching this level will be made possible if government steps up and finances research,” he said.

Karuranga added: “E-learning becomes important in knowledge sharing. For example, my university is thinking of setting up a platform where students will learn how to grow maize or cultivate avocados, or produce hybrid seeds. This will help us save the billions of francs spent on importing seeds from Zambia.”

According to a Taarifa report, Rwanda’s mobile phone penetration had reached 76% by July this year, with 8.3 million of the 12 million population having mobile devices that they mostly used to communicate with and send or receive money.

While the internet penetration in the country was still relatively low at 47%, according to the latest data from the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA), the desire among university students and graduates to create applications and ICT-supported technologies had never been as high.

Software developers and students believe that, with support of central government, major strides in ICT could translate into strong synergies allowing communities to link up with institutions of higher learning. However, this support needed improvement.

Red tape a barrier to research

“We have received funds from donors, but when we try to fully activate our project, we are faced with unnecessary barriers at local government level, in the form of red tape,” said Clement Gatsinzi, a graduate of the Rwanda Integrated Polytechnic Regional Centre and team leader of an ICT-based project in water recycling.

Gatsinzi and his seven-member team had received funding from the International Organisation of the Francophonie to implement the project, which included helping community to access clean water from boreholes powered by solar panels.

The project, which incorporated the IoT, was “designed mostly to monitor the filtering process of collected rainwater, where we can measure levels of potable water and inform communities at what stage they can be consumed”, he added.

It was more relevant in water scarce areas in Eastern Rwanda, which had relatively low rainfall, and helped communities avoid having to travel to find potable water, Gatsinzi said.