Does this sound familiar? There’s a community up in the mountains that had virtually no industry. The world’s economy hadn’t just passed it by, the global economy didn’t even know the place exists. Education levels were low; poverty levels were high.By The Roanoke Times


The best choice for the continuity on 3 & 4 August 2017

How about this? New leaders take over this mountain community and decide to fundamentally change the economy. They decide — quite improbably — that they are going to turn their community into a technology center. Not just any technology center, but a world-class technology center so modern that it will be referred to as “the Silicon Valley of . . .”
Can they do it?
Well, to some extent they have: The place is now crisscrossed by fiber-optic cable humming with broadband Internet. School kids are learning how to write software code. Carnegie-Mellon University has opened a campus there. More importantly, high-tech companies from around the world are investing there to take advantage of the newly-trained workforce — and the low cost of doing business. This mountain community now boasts one of the fastest economic growth rates in the world.
Does this sound like a place that localities in rural Virginia could learn something from? We hope the answer is an obvious “yes.” The identity of this new technology hotspot, though, is not nearly so obvious.
It’s Rwanda.
As in the tiny central African nation of Rwanda. The same Rwanda that was last in the news when it was convulsed by a horrific genocide in the 1990s that killed upwards of one million people in just 100 days — a rate of 10,000 a day if you want to do the bloody math. On one particularly gruesome day, some 5,000 people were executed in a church — some gunned down, others hacked to death by machete, still more blown up by grenades or burnt alive.
This is not about that, though. This is not about one of humanity’s darkest days; this is about the economic miracle that Rwanda has become since — because the road map that Rwanda has used to remake its economy is one that any locality in rural Virginia could also follow. Let’s start with the lay of the land: Rwanda is mountainous. It had no railroads linking it to the outside world, no African version of interstate highways, and few natural resources, other than coffee beans and tea leaves. The place is known as “the land of a thousand hills,” which explains why in Daleville there is a coffee shop by that name selling Rwandan beans. Rwanda’s post-genocide leaders —led by President Paul Kagame — set out to transform this backwards agricultural nation into a modern technological one.
First, they had to educate a new workforce. They sought to increase school enrollment to get more kids into school. They pushed worker training programs for adults. With the exception of the place name, the mission statement of the government’s Workforce Development Authority sounds little different from one that you might read from Virginia’s community college system: “It is expected that a critical mass of Rwandan population will acquire skills relevant with today’s increasingly competitive world.”
Education became a national mission. The government set out to give every child a laptop computer. One of the most common bills in Rwandan currency shows four students in a classroom, each one tapping away on a computer. It also pointedly shows a girl among them; Rwanda has been big on encouraging girls to go into what we in this country would call “STEM” fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Keep in mind this is a country where only 16 percent of the people have electricity in their homes. However, there are buses filled with computers that now roll into rural communities for public use — the digital equivalent of our bookmobiles. The government’s stated mission — as one minister explained to African Renewal magazine — is to create “a critical mass of IT professionals.” Is this even possible?
Remember that Rwanda started with nothing —literally, nothing. Tech Crunch magazine reports that “Rwanda only opened its first computer science program in 1998 with a single lab where the university department had to fly in South Africans to teach locals how to maintain and operate PCs.”
Yet now . . .
“The streets of the capital, Kigali, are lined with new construction, elegant boutique hotels and fancy restaurants,” the Washington Post reports. “The roads are among the best on the continent. The nation consistently tops lists as the least corrupt and most business-friendly in Africa.”
Carnegie-Mellon opened a campus in 2012. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been to Rwanda to run programs for aspiring entrepreneurs. Start-up companies in Rwanda have partnered with Apple, Microsoft, HP and Intel, deals that any American firm would salivate over. A South Korean firm is laying a 4G network that will put high-speed Internet within reach of 95 percent of Rwandans. That would put a war-torn country in African far ahead of, say, Virginia, where very few rural communities have broadband. From a global perspective, Kigali may be a better location for a technology start-up than many places in rural Virginia. Rwanda’s Internet speeds are slow by global standards but still faster than, say, Rocky Mount or Pearisburg.
The beauty of technology work is that, with the right workforce and connections, it can be done anywhere. One prominent Rwandan entrepreneur has signed a deal to design web applications for a Japanese company. Technology writers have flocked to Rwanda to tell its story; some call it the “Silicon Valley of Africa.” Others call it “the Singapore of Africa.”
“You say, ‘I have entrepreneurs here, I have a world-class university, I have IT businesses, and I have IT infrastructure’ — that looks to me like a mini-Silicon Valley,” the associate director of Carnegie Mellon University–Rwanda told Slate magazine. “The only thing we are missing are venture capitalists.”
Rwanda’s remarkable economic turnaround — still very much unfinished — has been jump-started by generous foreign aid. That’s not something we have, of course. On the other hand, even the poorest locality among us starts way far ahead of where Rwanda was at the end of its awful civil war. The real key seems to be a leadership that decided to make an audacious push to build a new economy through education and infrastructure. So what’s stopping some small community in rural Virginia from becoming the Rwanda of Appalachia?