Africa We Want

RWANDA: A review of Irembo; Rwanda’s ‘impressive’ e-government initiative

Like many countries, Rwanda has embarked on the complete digitization of public services to close the gap between citizens and governance. The East African country’s digital transformation initiative is recording great success thanks to Irembo – an interoperable e-government platform. By Michael Akuchie

This week, Paula Ingabire – the Rwandan Minister of ICT and Innovation – revealed the country’s plans to make over 400 services available electronically by 2024.

Although the Irembo platform currently offers access to 103 services, a project worth more than $12 million (Rwf13 billion) hopes to ensure that Rwanda meets its target. However, problems like low ICT literacy and poor telecom infrastructure stand in the way.

Beyond simplifying access to these amenities, Rwanda’s e-government program seeks to tackle corruption, and perhaps most importantly – help transform the low-income nation into a middle-income one by 2035. This and other objectives constitute its National Strategy for Transformation (NST1).

According to the United Nations’ E-Government survey, Rwanda – for the first time – was recognized as a country with a high level of e-governance in 2022. It joined Zambia (South Africa) and Côte d’Ivoire (West Africa) as newcomers to that category. It’s worth noting that South Africa, Mauritius, Seychelles, Tunisia, and Morocco make up the Top 5 list of African countries with high levels of e-governance development.

Irembo in view

Before Irembo’s emergence, getting birth certificates or travel documents was quite difficult. This is because citizens, especially in rural areas, had to walk many kilometres to the nearest government agency in charge of registration and issuance.

Irembo, Rwanda’s e-government platform

Nowadays, a quick visit to Irembo’s landing page presents various services cut across multiple sections like Family, Immigration/Emigration, Identification, Land, and more. The product of a public-private partnership (PPP), Irembo has handled over 25 million service applications/transactions worth over Rwf 300 billion.

What’s more, Inagire revealed that mobile money was the most-used method of payment. The country has 16.6 million registered subscribers according to a 2022 report from the Rwanda National Bank. Of that figure, there were 6 million+ active mobile money users while over 1.5 million transactions worth Rwf14.6 million were processed. It’s safe to presume that continued usage of Irembo could see Rwanda’s mobile money market surge wildly.

Irembo faced a major challenge upon the start of operations, and that was low internet penetration. “At the start, one of the biggest challenges was to reach out to Rwandans living in remote villages. While most of them own a mobile phone and are familiar with mobile payments, many do not have access to the Internet,” said CrimsonLogic a partner of Irembo.

Datareportal found that just 4.25 million Rwandans were internet users as of January 2023. This symbolizes an internet penetration of 30%. For context, the nation’s population is 13.94 million. There have been measures to close the gap with Starlink’s entry in Rwanda being the most recent. There’s much more to be done, though.

So, how did Irembo bypass this hurdle? It utilized Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) technology which means anyone with a basic phone with some level of familiarity with mobile payments could use the platform. Irembo also comes in handy for the following groups – Rwandans living overseas, tourists, and foreigners.

Why Rwanda’s e-government initiative is working

Digital governance, if properly implemented, can have long-term benefits for both citizens and the authorities. A document from the African Union corroborates this assertion by saying “The use of shared services and infrastructures contribute in reducing the cost of investment across governments.”

Regarding residents, the paper adds “having a single government portal, a whole of government services catalogue, with interoperable systems in the back-end, improves user experience on access to services.”

A major reason why Rwanda’s attempt at digitizing government services is better than many African counties is that Irembo isn’t entirely a government-owned product. As a collaborative effort between the public and private sectors, it allows both parties to share the associated risks and increase the project’s chances of longevity.

Another noteworthy fact is that when Irembo sensed a major problem (low internet usage), it rolled out an alternative solution (USSD) that can run on basic phones. It also offers multiple services that, in a country like Nigeria, would have to be accessed by visiting multiple government websites.

With the increased use of technology comes heightened fears of job loss and this rings true even for a developing region like Africa. Interestingly, Irembo currently employs 7, 000 agents in its network. These agents or “digital ambassadors” enable citizens lacking phones or the level of literacy needed to access the portal.

With Rwanda aiming for 400+ digital services by next year, the country should match that ambition with improved telecoms infrastructure. It should also ensure Irembo is constantly guarded against cybersecurity attacks and most importantly – more citizens are sensitized about this program.

Author: MANZI
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