The President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, was welcomed with a standing ovation to a packed Kresge Auditorium as he addressed the MIT community yesterday as a guest speaker for the Compton Lecture Series, talking about the “Imperative of Science and Technology in Accelerating African and Rwandan Development.” Examples of how mobile phones have helped empower Rwandans and enable entrepreneurship as well as the challenges that have yet to be met filled Kagame’s talk. He also asked the MIT community to take part in the effort to help develop countries like Rwanda through innovation and technology.
President Susan Hockfield introduced Kagame as “Rwanda’s first democratically elected head of state,” lauding his enhancement and reform of the Rwandan education system by “making primary and some secondary education free and universally available.”
Kagame started his talk by saying that he wanted to reflect on “the imperative of focusing and utilizing science and technology,” to effect Africa’s socioeconomic transformation. He called on the MIT community to take part in this effort to put innovation and entrepreneurship at the forefront of Rwanda’s most valuable resource, its people. Kagame highlighted the One Laptop Per Child initiative that is bringing computers to children in developing countries.
Most of the talk was spent talking about the positive benefits of mobile phone technology. “Africa is the fasted growing market for mobile phones,” said Kagame adding that there were 28 million subscribers in the first quarter of 2008 alone. Mobile phones have been influential in spinning off small retail businesses as well as playing a leading role in narrowing the digital divide, said Kagame. Mobile phones have also allowed businesses in Rwanda to become global by allowing them to reach customers outside of their immediate neighborhood. Outside of business, Kagame gave an example of Voxiva as an effective public-private partnership to address public health through mobile phones. Voxiva allows users to relay data from the field in real time which is particularly useful in the exchange of patient data from remote areas.
The lecture was followed by a Q&A in which several members of the audience asked very open questions to the president. First, a Harvard Medical student questioned the priority of science and technology when many African countries are plagued with illiteracy and “incompetent governments.” In response, Kagame agreed that science and technology is not the solution but that it is “one major component.” “We must make sure that the prerequisites for the foundation [are] there,” he said. He added that the African Union recognizes these shortcomings and is taking initiatives to create new partnerships for development.
Another question touched upon an issue not addressed in the lecture, the role of women in Rwandan society. When asked if the female majority in parliament is “a reflection of women in other sectors” or a tailored effort by the government, Kagame responded by saying, “it’s a real effort to have women in different levels … to play their rightful roles as members of society.” He added, “it’s foolhardy to imagine that you will rip off 52 percent of the public.”
The last question referenced the investment of China in African nations, questioning the exploitation of resources. “It is as if we have become comfortable with that, that people will come from the outside to address our problem,” said Kagame, adding “Africa needs to stand up and make itself relevant.” He called on Africans to “wake up,” to which he received a roaring applause. Nicola Woodroffe, a Harvard Law student who worked this summer for the Supreme Court of Rwanda, said “it’s good to see a leader that is moving away from that victim mentality.”
Several students came because they were curious to hear a talk from a head of state. Obioma O. Ohia G, a graduate student in physics was interested in learning how “Rwanda was using technology in terms of development.” Legena Henry G, graduate student in Ocean Engineering, said that the speech made her think more about leadership in national development adding that, “it takes a whole other level of complexity to stand and be the leader of a country like Rwanda.” Most of the reactions to the lecture were very positive; listeners especially praised the candidness of the Q&A portion.
The Compton Lecture Series was established in 1957 with the mission to “bring to MIT some of the great minds on the world scene.” It is named in honor of former MIT President Karl Taylor Compton who lead the Institute during the Great Depression and the Second World War.