Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Paths Towards Technological Innovation and Sustainability in Rural Rwanda

Ironic (or perhaps karmic?) that my last post was on the Metrorail. Things have only seemed to get worse for passenger rail in Cape Town. Last week there were more apparently coordinated arson attacks, which came along with coverage of atrocious on-time performance. My own experience getting robbed at gunpoint midday during the week on the Southern Line a few weeks back has very much contributed to a personal pessimism regarding PRASA’s ability to serve passengers safely and efficiently.

But rather than dwelling on that, I’d like to share some thoughts about the trip to Rwanda I’ve just returned from, where I was working on research looking at the implementation of drone technology there. While the focus of that research does not precisely line up with this this blog, I nevertheless found myself considering afresh some themes around sustainability and development, particularly in the context of self-suffciency.

Rwanda is an interesting country for many reasons, not least because of the government’s mission to turn around the narrative regarding Africa and development. As I saw throughout my trip, the government there is working to promote new technologies that can, in the cliche’d parlance of development-speak, “leapfrog” the path of technological development followed in Global North countries. The mobile phone is held up as the best example of this--this technology is ubiquitous in Africa, which never developed the landline infrastructure that presaged mobile communications technology in places like the US and Europe. From common wifi access throughout the capital Kigali, to an expanding medical drone network serving rural areas, Rwanda is chasing the concept of technological leapfrogging, and seems to be succeeding due in part to the unified and centralized hard and soft power that the ruling party exerts.

On the other hand, it is clear, particularly in the country’s rural areas, how poor Rwanda is by conventional standards. Subsistence agriculture is the dominant form of living in the country, and access to capital very limited. I learned in the rural area I visited that a primary savings/investment vehicle is the keeping of farm animals, who are not kept to be eaten but to be sold if a life event requires cash. Living is very basic, difficult, and often tenuous.

In many ways, rural life in Rwanda could be said to reflect an ideal of "deep" ecological movements, including a self-provisional economic approach best advocated for (in my opinion) by Molly Scott Cato. A self-provisional economy is one in which people primarily take care of their own basic human needs. The idea is that this sort of living reduces consumption and avoids over-dependence on outside resources, goods, and services, thereby reducing the ecological impact and economic cost of sustaining massive centralized markets, practices, and systems. For instance, this style reduces or eliminates reliance on industrialized monocrop agriculture, while can be supported only through enormous resources inputs and result in similarly enormous outputs, that contribute to imbalanced ecologies.

I like to think that I’m not naive about the costs of moving towards a self-provisioning lifestyle, and I believe that many of these costs are offset by the benefits that urbanites like myself have lost in the transition towards modern lifestyles. However, it is hard for me to say that I would trade my modern life of convenience in for the tough lifestyle of rural Rwanda (although, then again, I may not know it well enough to judge). Part of this, no doubt, is highly cultural, but part of it is the real benefits I have enjoyed through centralized modern structures, including education, access to technologies, access to capital, etc.

Can the best of both these worlds be merged? Can they be made complementary in a manner that allows us to move towards self-sufficiency and an environmentally sound needs-based approach while not giving up the value, and yes, some of the convenience, of our technologically sophisticated modernity? I’m still optimistic, that it can be done, but I’m less certain about how it can be done practically, transitionally, and equitably. I’m also aware of the enormous obstacles, practical and psychological, that we have put up in our way.

As to whether the Rwandan government and Rwandan society at large sees this, I am also uncertain. Are technologically-advanced projects such as Rwanda’s medical drone network seen as a vehicle for supporting or replacing Rwanda’s rural and self-provisioning character? From my conversations with Rwandan stakeholders it appears that there is a dedication to serving rural populations, but there is also a desire to respond to demographic changes that are urbanizing Rwanda’s population. There is also the siren call of modern living, with its convenience and luxury, which I saw plenty of in Kigali. The extent to which Rwandan officials would like to protect what I would call its its self-sufficiency developmental advantage is unclear to me, but is something I would like to follow up on as the research progresses.