By David Himbara
Back in August 2008, General Paul Kagame was a very happy man. That was when the first made-in-Rwanda cellphone, named Alira, was unveiled in Kigali. Kagame’s New Times boasted that the made-in-Rwanda phone confirmed Rwanda “as an Information Technology hub in the region.”
The usual Kagame propagandists claimed that the Alira would soon reach every Rwandan household, and conquer markets across Africa. But the phone died on arrival — Alira was soon forgotten as were many Kagame’s ICT fantasy projects such as Mt Kilisimbi internet, television, air traffic control, and weather observatory.
Fast forward to April 2019. According to Paula Ingabire, the Minister for ICT and Innovation, that is when the factory to build a smartphone in Rwanda is to be set up. The creator of the smartphone is Kagame’s friend Ashish Thakkar. In November 2018, Thakkar had already announced that he would soon manufacture smartphones in Rwanda and in South Africa. He said he would export the phone accros Africa and Europe. To do this, Thakkar claimed he would invest in South Africa R1.5 billion or US$83 million over five years.
Now, the Kagame government announced on February 8, 2019, that negotiations with Thakkar’s Mara Corporation “to establish the plant are ongoing and that by April this year it could have started activities in the country.” The government says it will ”ensure each household has a smart device and digital literacy. Once the factory starts producing smartphones, people will be paying in installments over a period of 24 months.” One question needs to be asked, however. What exactly is Thakkar’s relationship with Kagame?
Back in 2014, Kagame made Thakkar an advisor and a member of Kagame’s Presidential Advisory Council. Kagame then handed over to Thakkar and his partner, Bob Diamond, significant Rwandan public assets. Kagame transferred part of Rwanda Development Bank and Banque Populaire du Rwanda (BPR) to the Atlas Mara group at the time owned by Thakkar and Diamond.
And now, Thakkar says he is about to manufacture smartphones to supply Rwandans and for the export market in Africa and Europe. Is this for real this time? Or are we witnessing the replay of the 2008’s rise and fall of made-in-Rwanda mobile phone? We wait and see. In Kagame’s Rwanda, wonders never cease.