Rwandas Mission Impossible: Lets do without aid By SHYAKA KANUMA THE EAST AFRICAN Posted Saturday, February 21 2009 at 09:58 No one has ever accused President Kagame or his administration of a lack of ambition. This is a government that has made it a habit to undertake seemingly impossible tasks and more or less succeed in most of them. Take the example of the almost quixotic goal of harnessing the methane gas in Lake Kivu for electricity. The gas has been bubbling up from the bottom of the lake for thousands of years and no one ever thought to use it for anything. Up to now, it actually has been something of a time bomb, given what happened in Cameroon in 1986, when Lake Nyos suddenly emitted a large cloud of carbon dioxide, killing 1,700 people. Enter the administration of Kagame, which instead saw an opportunity in a problem. The one beer brewing firm in the country, Bralirwa, had years ago figured out a way to run their Gisenyi factory with a generator running on the gas. The Rwandan president learned about it and the rest, as they say, is history. His government immediately commissioned a task force to look into the possibility of commercial generation of power from Kivu. There were many sceptics, both locally and internationally, who asserted that Rwanda was on a wild goose chase here; that since nowhere else in the world had commercial quantities of power ever been produced from methane, it wouldnt happen in Rwanda either. But Kagame gave the task force no option of failure; if a brewing firm could produce a tiny quantity of power to run its factory, then a government could surely produce enough to satisfy at least some of its needs. International firms that claimed to have, experience in building power plants using non-conventional sources like hydro were contracted. One firm, the now infamous Dane Associates, which claimed to have a base in Scotland, turned out to be a briefcase company that had never built a single power plant anywhere. The government then contracted the Israel-based Ludan Technologies, to build a pilot plant on Kivu with a capacity of five megawatts. The Israelis built the plant but hit a snag. The minimum percentage of purity of the gas needed to fire the plants generators is 70 per cent. But their plant could purify it to only 25 per cent. The Israelis left in frustration. But the Rwandans were not about to contemplate failure. The Ministry of Infrastructure quickly assembled a team of the countrys best engineers led by Alexis Kabuto, a young, German-trained hydraulic engineer to improvise until the required levels of gas purity were attained. The local engineers tinkered around the plant and actually found a way to make it attain 90 per cent of the required purity. They fired the generators with it and in November last year Rwanda began enjoying the fruits of these efforts the experimental plant began producing two megawatts of electricity, enough for all the needs of Gisenyi town. It had cost the government of Rwanda upwards of 10 million euros ($12 million). Now investors, local and foreign, are lining up for a bit of the action. But most importantly, gas with the potential to blow up and asphyxiate everyone within the vicinity of the lake now never will; within 50 years, it will instead have been used up to power Rwandan businesses and homes. Another of this governments declared ambitions it to become the IT hub of the region. Five years ago, it set up the semi-autonomous Rwanda Information Technology Agency (RITA), which, among other things, is busy digging ditches all over the Rwandan landscape and laying a high-speed fibre-optic cable that should cover the entire country in a few years. Pretty big ambitions for a small African country, one will say. When you talk to Nkubito Bakuramutsa, a 30-something whiz kid headhunted from Californias Silicon Valley to run RITA (which is now merged into the newly set up Rwanda Development Board along with several other government agencies) you get the feeling this man means everything he says about building the required national infrastructure to nurture a truly competitive IT industry. But it is with the recent declaration of the government of Rwanda that they want to break free of dependency on foreign aid that one begins to wonder whether these people havent finally forgotten where they are. We are a landlocked country with no resources to speak of and with a largely peasant population, most of whom cannot read or write. How do you contemplate breaking free of dependency on foreign aid when even much better endowed nations such as South Africa still depend on aid to meet some of their needs? But the Rwandan president and his officials seem dead serious about it. It will be interesting to see where their efforts lead us. Shyaka Kanuma is chief editor of the Kigali-based weekly newspaper, Focus.