Smart Kigali: An IoT project to transform Rwanda

We spoke with Paul Gudonis, President, Inmarsat Enterprise, about smart initiatives in Rwanda

It seems cities around the globe are competing to be the next to be ‘smart’, and while the likes of Singapore are well on the way, others are just beginning. Rwandan capital, Kigali, this month began its journey, with a city-wide deployment of LoRaWAN (a form of LPWAN or Low Power Wide Area Network). Part of the city’s flagship smart city project, the infrastructure will be the connectivity platform for a variety of Internet of Things (IoT) applications, and is hoped to provide a blueprint for smart city projects throughout Africa.

The LoRaWAN network, deployed by mobile satellite pioneer Inmarsat, will enable organisations to develop and deploy IoT applications on a large scale, as well as allow entrepreneurs to easily connect their front-end IoT devices through a middleware layer. Potential uses of Kigali’s smart city initiative include environmental monitoring e.g. air quality sensors; smart farming initiatives; and a ‘smart’ bus equipped with satellite internet that will provide connectivity for remote communities. We spoke to Paul Gudonis, President of Inmarsat Enterprise, to find out more about the deployment and what it means for Rwanda. The lightly edited Q&A can be found below.


Can you tell us more about how the deployment came about?

Inmarsat has been involved with the Smart Africa Alliance (a partnership that brings together all African countries committed to the Smart Africa Manifesto and is supported by regional and global bodies), for some time now and it’s something we’re fully committed to. We actually became the first commercial company to join the Alliance last year and since that time have been working closely with them to further the advancement of smart cities in Africa.

With Rwanda leading the smart city charge, we saw an opportunity at the Transform Africa Summit in Kigali. It’s the perfect moment to demonstrate the potential use of technology to unlock the smart city of the future in front of an audience of African decision-makers and influencers. We subsequently worked with a number of partners to come up with a variety of IoT applications that could help improve the urban environment and collaborated with our partners Actility, the industry leader in Low Power Wide Area Networks for industrial IoT, to develop and deploy LoRaWAN (a form of LPWAN) infrastructure around Kigali, providing the fundamental building blocks for the smart city initiative. 


Security is considered a huge issue for IoT. How was it tackled, and what other technical challenges did you face?

Cyber security is at the centre of all of this – it has to be. If we are going to move to a world that is enabled by internet connectivity, we need the highest levels of resilience and security. I think that cyber security probably is not high enough on the agenda as it stands, though we can see that changing fast. Fortunately, we are in a strong position to address security concerns and work with governments around the world who rely on our satellite connectivity. Our business depends on us being strong on security, which is one of the reasons why we are investing significant amounts to ensure our networks are as resilient as they can be.

One of the big challenges Africa has faced is connectivity because of its geography. There are places you just can’t take fibre, but the need for connectivity exists everywhere. It’s a fundamental human enabler. That’s one of the reasons why satellite connectivity has been so important for this project. We offer global mobile broadband, meaning that we’ve been able to deliver connectivity and support cutting edge services throughout the entire city. Even in many cities cellular networks don’t offer full coverage, so you can imagine how important this type of connectivity will be key for more remote areas going forward.


What will the network mean for the city of Kigali, and for the tech industry as a whole?

The network will support a number of initiatives in Kigali, all of which contribute to different elements of the city's development. One of the most exciting elements of the network is the way city-wide coverage enables businesses, entrepreneurs, and organisations to develop and deploy their own IoT applications on a wide-scale in an urban environment. This provides the groundwork for the city's many dynamic businesses and individuals to develop solutions to address any number of urban challenges, making life for the citizens of the city safer, healthier, easier, and more enjoyable. For the tech industry, it provides the impetus to launch their own experiments with the IoT and to push the boundaries of what can be accomplished with the IoT in an urban environment. 


What initiatives are taking place to stimulate business growth in Rwanda? Are these mostly led by the government? Or do they tend to be more commercial?

Rwanda is something of a regional leader in regards to stimulating business growth, and the smart city project Kigali is by no means an anomaly. The government understands the potential of technology businesses to advance the development of the country and is highly receptive toward private enterprise. It took the lead by establishing a Ministry of Youth and ICT, putting digital literacy and skills at the centre of its long term economic plan with the aim of establishing itself as an attractive regional hub for technology companies. Inmarsat has, in fact, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with this government ministry to facilitate closer coordination with the Government and to develop technology initiatives which will align with the Rwandan National ICT strategy. 


Compared to other African countries, how well is Rwanda set up for entrepreneurialism?

Rwanda's economic reforms were at least partially aimed at making it easier for people with good business ideas to get started. As one of East Africa's most competitive economies, Rwanda is now an increasingly inviting destination for entrepreneurialism. The smart city project in Kigali of course offers unparalleled opportunities for anyone seeking to tap into the latent potential of the Internet of Things, but there are other exciting initiatives happening too. The Rwanda-India entrepreneurship deal will establish an Entrepreneurship Development Centre in Rwanda which will provide training and education geared towards supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs. 


What can other African cities learn from your approach? 

The key learning for other African cities is the way the project has united government, commercial, and NGO resources to deliver a blueprint for digital services that we hope will be replicated elsewhere in Africa. This spirit of collaboration enables the project to tap into a wide variety of resources and achieve things on a grander scale. For example, bringing together Inmarsat's and Actility's satellite and network expertise with the Rwandan government's forward-thinking approach and the Kigali municipal authorities was key to advancing the smart city agenda in Kigali. It requires a variety of different technological capabilities to make this work, and as can be seen with the breadth of partners involved in the Kigali project, getting this factor right is key to success.  


The network deployment coincided with the recent Transform Africa Summit – what can you tell us about plans for building a smarter Africa?

There are some really exciting developments taking place and it’s clear that there is a commitment from leaders across the continent to building a smarter Africa. One reason the drive for smarter cities is important for Africa is urbanisation, which is advancing at a fast pace. In around a decade there will be at least eight more cities that will come to be the size that Kigali is today, which will present its own challenges. Africa has to cope with that, and one of the ways to do that is with smart cities.

Fortunately, Africa has an advantage in some senses because it’s not restricted by legacy infrastructure investments in the same way that we are in the UK, which will enable it to effectively leapfrog an entire generation. Just as Africa leapt straight to mobile, it can lead the way in smart cities. This is a promising notion, and one which we want to continue supporting. But it’s going to take an alliance of many different technologies to get there, including terrestrial, Wi-Fi, and satellite connectivity.



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