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Science and technology minister Professor Romain Murenzi says science and technology will be at the heart of Rwanda's development strategies.

Rwanda's recent history, which culminated in the genocide of 1994 and the deaths of up to one million people, also devastated the country's economy and infrastructure.

The country remains one of the poorest in the world, with 57 per cent of the population living on less than US$1 per day. Contributing factors include a high population growth (3 per cent) and density (310 people per square kilometre), and a predominately rural population (90 per cent) with no access to electricity and which relies strongly on agriculture (accounting for 47 per cent of GDP), much of it at a subsistence level.

Rwanda urgently needs to develop both economically and socially but its natural resource base is very low — virtually non-existent. Improving Rwanda's science, technology and innovation capability is essential for the country's development and will reduce its poverty.

Looking ahead

In its Vision 2020 statement, the Government of Rwanda identified key challenges facing the country, which include improving food security and nutrition, generating cash income for rural subsistence farmers and helping them diversify their production, improving access to clean water, energy and housing, reducing the prevalence of diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS and diversifying the country's economic base.

We plan to do this by adopting a science, technology and innovation based approach. Our National Policy on Science, Technology and Innovation aims to "integrate science, technology, scientific research and innovation in a framework that shall include capability building, technical transfer initiatives, and the promotion of innovation."

International collaboration is critical to help us achieve these aims. In 2006, we began a joint project with the World Bank Science and Technology Programme. A series of studies assessed our needs and formulated practical, costed action plans in six high priority areas: food processing, agricultural research, access to clean water, geothermal energy, adding value to natural resources, and developing and diffusing appropriate technology.

New beginnings

The next phase, now underway, is to implement the studies' results. The government is undertaking major work to develop technical and vocational training centres throughout Rwanda. Called École Technical Officielles (ÉTOs), they are aimed primarily at secondary school students and will train the tradesmen and technicians of the future, offering courses including mechanics, carpentry, electronics and construction. ÉTO Gitarama, with support from the Ministry of Science and Technology, has already begun an industrial apprenticeship programme where recent graduates of the school can take a one year apprenticeship in various industries throughout Rwanda, including automotive mechanics, construction and public works, electronic and electrical engineering. By mid 2009 125 students will have benefited from the programme, with 18 companies taking part. 

In agriculture, with the support of the Institute of Agricultural Research (ISAR),progress is being made to improve crop yield and food processing abilities. Raising agricultural yields will not improve food security if surplus food rots because it cannot be safely kept. Hence one of the above studies is aimed at developing and deploying appropriate technologies to process and store food without using large amounts of electricity.

When it comes to energy, Rwanda has considerable geothermal resources but lacks the capacity to harness this potential energy source. So several personnel from the Ministry of Infrastructure are involved in geothermal training programmes in Iceland, with further trainings scheduled for the future.

Fostering a culture of entrepreneurship and an understanding of value-added commodity chains is a key step in developing a strong private sector. Rwanda has already had some successes in diversifying its economic base by developing high value-added export industries. For example, the Maraba Coffee Project has introduced coffee washing stations to produce high quality coffee, and a company called Ikirezi Natural Products is producing high quality essential oils from geranium.

In an address to the 8th African Union summit on Science, Technology and Research for Africa's Development, in 2007, Rwanda's President, Paul Kagame, recognised the role of science and technology, saying "Historically… it has been all about using scientific and technological applications to achieve fundamental socioeconomic transformation".

It is true that Rwanda faces many development challenges. But by ensuring that science, technology, and innovation, as well as information and communication technologies, continue to play a central role in our development strategies, I am optimistic that Rwanda will achieve its goals in the coming years.

Romain Murenzi is minister in charge of science and technology in the Office of the President.