KIGALI, Rwanda — Travel back in time with civil engineering Prof. Digne Rwabuhungu and you’ll get a sense of how far this tiny central African nation has come. The year was 1995. Rwanda, destitute from civil war and shattered from a campaign of genocide that left up to 800,000 dead, including Rwabuhungu’s brother, counted fewer than 20 engineers available for rebuilding.
Heeding a call to return home from a university post in neighboring Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwabuhungu joined five other lecturers in reassembling an engineering department at the National University of Rwanda (NUR).
With just one Ph.D. among them, they began by training about 150 students to earn diplomas as engineering technicians, not yet aspiring to offer bachelor’s degrees. Electricity was on for only a few hours a day. “We started from zero,” Rwabuhungu recalls. “We had no paper, no computers.” And no cash. For more than six months, the faculty’s only pay was a meager ration of rice, oil, and sugar.
If you had told Rwabahungu then that by 2011 NUR would be conferring engineering bachelor’s degrees on nearly 500 students and master’s degrees on 44 more, and that they would be learning on 400 computers in perhaps the most sophisticated information-and-communications-technology facility on the continent, “I would have said you were crazy,” says Rwabahungu. “It was undreamable.”
Yet the National University, in the city of Huye, is not even the biggest growth story in engineering education in Rwanda. Here in the capital, the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) has sprung up from the ground to become nearly NUR’s equal as a trainer of engineers, with its own modern facilities.
And the expansion continues: Carnegie Mellon University plans to open the first degree-granting campus in Africa by any U.S. university. Next year, CMU’s Kigali campus will begin preparing about 40 Africans for master’s degrees in information technology, with plans to add electrical and computer engineering the following year.
“There is a revolution in engineering in Rwanda since the ’94 genocide,” says Leopold Mbereyaho, KIST’s dean of engineering. Adds Felix Akorli, a Ghanaian information and computer technology professor who has taught for a nearly a decade at NUR: “What our local institutions have done, from zero in ’94 to today, is simply amazing. We’ve been moving heaven and earth to make things work.”
Behind this transformation is Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, who in 1994 led a rebel army from its base in Uganda to defeat Rwanda’s Hutu-led government forces and the Interahamwe militias responsible for much of the ethnic slaughter. In power for the past 17 years, he is intent on turning this landlocked and once desperate nation of subsistence farmers into the Singapore of Africa, with a knowledge-based economy powered by information technology. “The creation of a critical mass of scientists and engineers and specialists required to lead the diffusion of science and technology is the single most challenging task facing contemporary Africa,” he told an audience three years ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
It was Kagame’s government that insisted in August 1997 on a new institute of technology. “We had two months to recruit staff and students,” recalls Silas Lwakabamba, a lanky mechanical engineer who became KIST’s first rector. Lectures were to begin November 1. “Results — that’s what President Kagame likes,” says Lwakabamba, Formerly engineering dean at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, he is now the rector of NUR.
Today, KIST has a campus of neatly trimmed hedges and four large buildings. Young Rwandans clear rubble in the massive shadow of the just opened KIST 4 building, a multipurpose laboratory facility with state-of-the-art chemistry, computer, and mechanical engineering labs. They labor to remove some of the last remnants of their campus’s sad history. In 1994, this was Camp Kigali, the military epicenter of the genocide against minority Tutsis. The site was given to the institute in part for its swords-into-plowshares symbolism. “They wanted to change this history from something nasty to something beautiful,” says Lwakabamba.
The KIST campus was built on faith and goodwill. “I never had a budget for any of those buildings. If I had 10 million Rwandan francs (about $30,000), I would build a foundation and then go knock on people’s doors,” says Lwakabamba, rapping his knuckles on his wooden desk. International donors opened their doors — and their coffers. KIST drew expertise and funding from Germany and the United Nations Development Program. Japanese aid and an African Development Bank loan paid for the $8 million KIST 4 Building. At NUR, Sweden has funded the information and computer technology master’s program for the past eight years; the Netherlands has pledged $600,000 to upgrade the civil engineering department. “The number of donors supporting engineering is growing day after day,” says Umaru Wali, who heads civil engineering at NUR.
The faculty of engineering — known as applied sciences at NUR — is in a swoon over its new ICT Building, made possible by a $4 million gift from the Korea International Cooperation Agency. “This is a big jump for engineering in Rwanda,” says Dawoud Dawoud, NUR’s engineering dean. The computing labs alone boost the ratio of PCs to 1:4, up from 1:17 a couple of years ago. Adds Dawoud: “No other university in Africa — east, west, north, or south — has a lab facility like this.”
Equally overwhelmed is fourth-year computer science major Ivan Ingabire. Sitting in the newly opened Microprocessors and Embedded Systems Lab, he unpacks a glistening, Korean-made test kit and tries it out. Three quarters of the way through an Embedded Systems course, he had not touched a microprocessor before today, relying on lectures and notes alone. “But you can’t do a program on a simple PC and run it unless you have the microprocessor to see how it runs,” he says. In the past, Ingabire also studied networking without any access to hardware. As he recalls it, “We saw routers and switches in pictures.” Upstairs from where he sits, the Networking Lab is stocked with a wall full of new routers and switches. “I didn’t expect it to have all this,” Ingabire marvels. “We are happy indeed.”
Kagame attended the inauguration of the ICT Building, telling students: “It is up to you to take advantage of this modern technology to make a huge difference in the lives of our citizens.” Responding to a student’s request on the president’s Twitter account, Kagame said he was working with the rector to ensure that the building’s labs would be open 24 hours a day.
The international infusion of money has not relieved the institutions’ money woes. Rwandan universities must provide a free education to all full-time students using an annual budget allocation equivalent to $2,500 per student, no matter what their major. New equipment can be installed, but “in Rwanda, it’s hard to maintain things,” says Gaurav Bajpai of KIST’s computer engineering department. Some experiments can’t be performed because of broken machines that are too expensive to fix. At NUR, about a quarter of the older computers are out of service at any one time. An antenna atop the NUR water tower, which should be broadcasting the Internet across the campus, goes unused.
One solution Bajpai favors is to schedule time for classes to use MIT’s iLabs. From their PCs in Kigali, students can set up experiments, enter test vectors, and check the measured results against theoretical predictions, interacting in real time with remotely controlled microelectronics in Cambridge, Mass.
More worrisome than equipment maintenance is a dearth of lecturers. “The biggest challenge in Rwanda is academic staff,” says Rwabuhungu. “All other challenges we can face.” A national skills audit in 2009 found a shortfall of 650 lecturers in science and engineering, almost half the total required. And among those in place, only a quarter had Ph.D.’s. The student/faculty ratio at NUR far exceeds Dawoud’s goal of 20:1 or lower. Faculty salaries are set by the government. “Remuneration of lecturers is not as good as we would like it to be,” Kagame told an audience last April. “We have far more needs than resources. This is the reality.”
NUR is working to upgrade its engineering faculty even if it means shortages in the near term. Ten staff members are currently overseas studying for graduate degrees, while continuing to draw their NUR salaries. For example, civil engineering tutor Fulgence Ntihemuka is hoping to be promoted to a lectureship after completing his M.Sc. in structural engineering at Oklahoma Christian University.
Holding onto faculty is a challenge now that Rwanda’s economy is booming. Annual growth is up 7 to 8 percent since 2003. Cranes hover over the skyline of Kigali and road construction stretches to every corner of the country, making it particularly difficult for universities to keep civil-engineering staff. “By the time you give one person critical training, he leaves,” says Wali. “It’s a problem.” Newly graduated civil engineers are even walking into management positions. The department tries to help them overcome their lack of on-the-job experience with short, hands-on courses. But Rwanda’s industrial sector is so underdeveloped that Mbereyaho says KIST mechanical engineering students struggle just to find internships. Even in information technology, the dean says, job searching will become tougher. “The market is not growing as fast as the number of graduates,” he explains.
KIST’s response is to encourage entrepreneurship. “We’re trying to talk to our graduates, telling them that they need to have enough skills to be job creators rather than job seekers, to create their own companies,” Mbereyaho says. Five KIST students could not even wait until graduation before taking off in business – following an American jump start. They were among 25 Rwandans studying mobile software development and business planning during an intensive, six-week Accelerating Information Technology Innovation workshop led by visiting MIT students. The workshop ended with an entrepreneurship competition, where the five students’ entry caught the eye of a Kenyan angel investor who was among the judges. The upshot is HeHe Ltd., a Web mobile applications firm that is already running a government website and mobile crowd-sourcing initiative eliciting citizen feedback on national programs.
“When you have a great idea, and you know the moment is right to do it, you just can’t wait,” says chief executive – and undergraduate -- Clarisse Iribagiza, speaking from HeHe Ltd.’s rented offices in an upmarket district of Kigali. “In Africa, the moment is now.”
At NUR, Felix Akorli believes that academia and industry must be closely linked in a country like Rwanda, where the private sector is hungry for technological expertise and engineering departments are starved of funding. He regularly invites local industry leaders to lecture his students and give them real-world assignments. In one early example, a cellular network executive asked ICT graduate students in 2004 to come up with proposals for implementing a fixed wireless data service. The company, MTN, acted on the students’ researched recommendations and implemented a WiMAX network in Kigali in 2006, more than a year before the first citywide WiMAX deployments in the United States. In thanks, MTN gave the department the equivalent of about $4,500. “Industry should depend on universities,” says Akorli. “There are lots of things we can do to help them look into the future.”
Another initiative addresses the reality that in Rwanda, illiteracy is widespread and computers are not. Akorli and his team won a $20,000 IBM grant to help develop the Spoken Web. Using an ordinary mobile phone, a local farmer could access the Spoken Web, vocalizing a question in his local language, the way an American farmer might type a question in Google. “You can ask for the market price of peanuts in Kinyarwanda and get the answer spoken back,” Akorli says.
In many ways, the engineering schools in Rwanda create a bridge from a nearly preindustrial life to the technological 21st century for the nation. Bienvenu Ntampaka had never even met an engineer before he enrolled in KIST, where his living and academic expenses are provided by the American charity Generation Rwanda. His father was a miner who dug by hand — until he was killed during the genocide, when Ntampaka was 7 years old. His mother supports herself by braiding hair. As a boy, he loved building, making dog houses out of wood and mud. Twenty years ago, he might have been confined to a career erecting small structures. But today, “civil engineering is my passion,” the 23-year-old says. As he studies for third-year exams on the concrete steps of KIST 4, he can ponder a future building skyscrapers.
Illustrious engineering alumni of the University of Zimbabwe are living proof of its once high standards. Sifiso Dabengwa is chief executive of the largest cellular network in Africa. Hardwell Chibvongodze is an inventor with SanDisk, manufacturer of computer memory systems. Even Zimbabwe’s deputy prime minister, Arthur Mutambara, went from the university to secure an Oxford Ph.D. in robotics and a lectureship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. University of Cape Town civil engineering Prof. Pilate Moyo proudly recalls his UZ undergraduate education: “It was better than South Africa.”
Recent graduates, however, find that the reputation of their alma mater has sunk so low that they struggle to gain a modicum of respect. No longer can they count on virtually automatic registration by the Engineering Council of South Africa. “We’re reluctant to accept the degrees on face value,” says Johan Pienaar, the council’s manager of registration.
That the university continues to graduate engineers at all is a tribute to the perseverance of faculty and students who endured Zimbabwe’s economic collapse. In 2008, hyperinflation reached the second-highest level in world history, with prices doubling daily. Donors who had strongly supported UZ engineering in the past were scared away by the autocratic rule of Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, who as chancellor of the university controls its administration. The university could not even maintain its water supply, much less engineering laboratories. Closed for months, it reopened only after UNICEF drilled new wells. Staff members left in droves, unable to live on their salaries, and the vacancy rate for engineering faculty topped 80 percent.
“There was just a total breakdown,” says Cuthbert Musingwini, who chaired UZ’s Department of Mining Engineering and now lectures at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Today, the Zimbabwean economy is starting to revive, in parallel with modest political improvements. Students sacrificed summer vacations to make up for lost time, returning to their classrooms a couple of weeks into a three-month holiday. Engineering staffing is slowly improving. Former UZ electrical engineering head Edward Chikuni says things “are looking up” at his former employer, and anticipates that one day he will return. Still, he notes that in the first-year classes he now teaches at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa, well over 10 percent of the students are Zimbabweans.
Daniel Chihombori, who handles external relations for UZ, decried perceptions of the “death” of engineering programs, writing in an email that “the programs have, as a matter of fact, been running consistently over the years.” But the UZ administration refused to authorize a visit by Prism and did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.
Moyo, meanwhile, says it “would be a given to go back” to UZ if the infrastructure fully recovered. But, he laments, “I don’t see that happening in my generation.” – DB
Don Boroughs is a freelance writer based in South Africa.