A tale of Two Tech-Savvy Countries: Costa Rica and Rwanda

June 26, 2020 4:51 PM

As a sign of return of normalcy in the country, Costa Rica will soon be welcoming visitors from the European Union and the United Kingdom, followed by Canada.

The concern over the persistence of non-tariff barriers in intraregional commerce has been one of the focal points in the Central American integration agenda in recent years.

By Ravi Bangar

Costa Rica and Rwanda, continents apart, share many commonalities – Small size and populations, good quality coffee, developed urban infra, community participation, and enlightened leadership.

In Costa Rica, the Arabica coffee plant was first grown near the end of the 1700s. The coffee industry created a wealthy upper class of growers and traders. Many had ties with government officials and helped secure the role of coffee in the Costa Rican economy. Although the balance of power during this time was unequal, the revenue from coffee did contribute to the modernization of Costa Rica. It helped build a railroad to the country’s Atlantic coast and construct the National Theater in San José.

A fine Rwanda coffee offers a silky, creamy body along with the floral notes. Rwanda coffees are more highly reviewed than the neighbouring regions. The coffee that flows out of Rwanda brings a great deal of sorrow and tragedy with it, but the story of hope that the coffee farmers of Rwanda have forged through their trials has given their coffee an extra level of meaning. The similarities do not just end there.

On regional integration Costa Rica and Rwanda have been playing a catalytic role in their respective regions. Since the 1990s, the Central American Common Market has seen substantive progress. The concern over the persistence of non-tariff barriers in intraregional commerce has been one of the focal points in the Central American integration agenda in recent years.

This has as its main priorities, among others; the implementation of the Customs Union Roadmap 2015-2024, the strengthening of physical regional connectivity. In 2015, at the request Costa Rica, the first exercises were carried out to identify the overrun cost caused by diverse administrative barriers to trade. In East Africa, Rwanda’s continued success in the region is due to its successful use of soft power within the East African Community. The initiative has yielded positive outcomes such as free movement of people, customs union and joint infrastructure projects.

These two minnows are also in the vanguard of promoting peace, peace building, development, technology, ICT, internet penetration, innovation, start-ups, entrepreneurs, advancement of education, healthcare, sustainable development, new and renewable energy, protecting environment, promoting responsible tourism, women’s empowerment, regional integration.

Costa Rica with 51,800 sq. kms., population of little over 5 million has 2,515 COVID 19 cases, 1210 recoveries and 12 deaths and Rwanda with half the landmass of Costa Rica, population of nearly 13 million has just 800 COVID 19 cases, close to 400 recoveries and only 2 deaths. Both the countries have done remarkably very well in the fight against the global pandemic as compared to giants like Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, Nigeria.

This also lends credence to hypothesis that you don’t have to have a large landmass, vast natural resource wealth to develop and respond with surefootednessto natural disasters including outbreaks of illnesses. All that is required is comprehensive approach, dedication, smart and enlightened leadership; invest in people, and societal awareness.

On COVID 19, Costa Rica along with Chile proposed the idea of “technology pooling” at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. Several countries have now backed the proposal. “Our proposal relies on solidarity,” said President Alvarado of Costa Rica. “It’s a Solidarity call to action to Member States, to academia, to companies, research institutions and cooperation agencies, based on global social responsibility, on a voluntary basis, promoting more global nonexclusive voluntary licensing.”

As a sign of return of normalcy in the country, Costa Rica will soon be welcoming visitors from the European Union and the United Kingdom, followed by Canada. The Tourism Board said it has helped to develop protocols for contact tracing visitors, and to address the eventuality that foreigners will require hospitalizations or extended isolation.

In 1502 Christopher Columbus’s fourth Atlantic voyage brought him to the shores of Costa Rica, where he remained for 18 days refitting his ships. It is said that relations with the native people became friendly enough that they brought him a number of items of gold, possibly prompting Columbus to name the land “Rich Coast”.

Costa Rica coinedPura Vida- Pure life, is generally regarded as having the stable and most democratic government in the Central America. Spanish colonialism, European immigration and customs have helped to mould Costa Rican history and influence its character. German, Italian, and British immigrants in the 19th century left an imprint on Costa Rican education, science, and culture.

In the 1970s immigrants mainly came from Argentina, Chile, and Colombia. However, in the 1980s immigrants and refugees arrived from nearby countries. Economic problems and political and armed conflict in Nicaragua and other Central American countries drove thousands of refugees (mainly mestizos) into Costa Rica, altering the ethnic composition.

The 1949 constitution abolished the country’s army (promotes demilitarization elsewhere as a part of its foreign policy), gave women the right to vote, and provided other social, economic, and educational guarantees for all of its citizens. Costa Rica managed to stay relatively peaceful compared with its war-torn neighbours. It has one of the highest literacy rates (more than nine-tenths) in the Western Hemisphere. Several renowned universities tend to make San José the centre of intellectual life in Central America.

Costa Rica’s well-populated heartland formed in and around the upland basin known as the Valle Central is devoted to the cultivation of coffee, one of the country’s most important exports. In the region’s outlying reaches, bananas—the principal export—are grown. Pineapples have become a significant export, surpassing coffee as the number two export.

In late 1990s Costa Rica had started to shift from an agriculture- and textile-based economy to a high-tech industrial one, though the textile industry rebounded in the late 20th century, largely owing to the development of plants making clothing from imported fabric for export to the United Statesunder the Central America–Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA–DR).

The U.S.-based Intel Corporation opened a large microprocessor semiconductor assembly and testing facility in Costa Rica in 1997, providing thousands of jobs. Since then, other large foreign technology and pharmaceutical companies have followed, attracted by the country’s location, political stability, highly skilled workforce, and tax incentives.Costa Rica has developed the largest national park system, relative to its size, of any Latin American country.

Continents apart, robots are now part of Rwanda’s fight against COVID-19 and will help minimize risk of infections among health care workers, authorities said in May.The robots are the result of joint efforts by the Rwandan Ministry of ICT and Innovation and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Five anti-epidemic robots – named Akazuba, Ikirezi, Mwiza, Ngabo, and Urumuri – will be mainly used to administer temperature checks, monitor patient status, and keep medical records of COVID-19 patients, the Health Ministry announced in a series of tweets in mid-May.

“These high-tech robots have the capacity to screen 50 to 150 people per minute, deliver food and medication to patient rooms, capture data and notify officers on duty about detected abnormalities,” the ministry said.

“The infectious nature of COVID-19 calls for technological innovations to tackle the pandemic. This is why Rwanda has introduced robots and drones among other high-tech initiatives to enhance efficiency in the fight,” ICT and Innovation Minister Paula Ingabire said.

Vision 2020, which lays out the government’s development strategy, has its eyes set on a restructured economy, where industry and services account for more than three-fourths of gross domestic product (GDP).Rwanda’s development goal is to become a middle-income nation. The change in relative size of industry and its contribution to economic growth can be an indicator of the strength of economic transformation processes.Its 2050 vision, Rwanda seeks to adjust to Modern and SMART cities (optimal space utilization, connected cities, broadband, internet of things).

As per a UNDP report Rwanda has emerged over the past decade as one of Africa’s more innovative economies. The small, landlocked, mountainous country is focused on bolstering the use of technology in sectors beyond information and communication. The tech savvy and highly ambitious East African country is highly wired and currently beams 4G LTE.The country’s focus on information and communications technologies (ICTs) has helped the sector grow more than tenfold since 2000. Internet users throughout the country can now surf on a fibre-optic network. And mobile coverage has reached almost 100%.

Rwanda will soon become the first African country to embrace the superfast 5G internet technology. After successfully implementing 4G across the country,Korea Telecom KT is getting into another partnership with the Rwandan government to roll out 5G.

In medical research, Rwanda scored another breakthrough in the development of new algorithm in treatment of Tuberculosis. With around 1.5 million deaths a year, Tuberculosis is the world’s deadliest infectious disease. Over the years, the infection has developed resistance against Rifampicin. Dr Jean Claude Semuto, with his team of researchers at Rwanda Biomedical Centre (RBC) discovered that a standard algorithm that was used to diagnose provides faulty results.

Based on their findings, the National Tuberculosis Programme in Rwanda changed its diagnostic algorithm and patients now receive proper care. Since January 2020 when the new algorithm was applied, Tuberculosis patients with Rifampicin-resistant strains have been cut by a half as of June 2020.

Rwanda known as “The Land of a Thousand Hills” has been an extraordinary journey of resilience since independence in 1962 from Belgium located in Eastern Africa surrounded by DR Congo, Uganda and Burundi.

Pre-colonial Rwanda was ahighly centralised kingdom presided over by Tutsi kings who hailed from one ruling clan. In 1889, Rwanda became a German colony. Following defeat of Germans in WWI, subsequently in 1919 Rwanda became a mandate territory of the League of Nations under the administration of Belgium. The Germans and Belgians administered Rwanda through a system of indirect rule. In 1935, Belgium introduced a discriminatory national identification on the basis of ethnicity creating Tutsis and Hutus. The time-tested colonial policy of “Divide and Rule”. Thus,the sowing seeds of 1994 genocide which followed in 1994 with tragic, devastating resultshook conscience of the world and guilt among few for their acts of omission and commission in the horrible genocide.

In 1962, Belgium granted formal political independence to Rwanda. What followed was political uncertainty, coups, increased marginalisation and impoverishment of populations, deepening socio-racial divides, instability.

About 85% of Rwandans are Hutus but the Tutsi minority has long dominated. In 1959, the Hutus overthrew the Tutsi monarchy and tens of thousands of Tutsis fled to neighbouring countries, including Uganda. In just 100 days in 1994, about 800,000 people were massacred in Rwanda by ethnic Hutu extremists. They were targeting members of the minority Tutsi community, as well as their political opponents, irrespective of their ethnic origin. A year after US troops were killed in Somalia, the US was determined not to get involved in another African conflict. The Belgians and most UN peacekeepers pulled out after 10 Belgian soldiers were killed.The French, who were allies of the Hutu government, sent a special force to evacuate their citizens and later set up a supposedly safe zone but were accused of not doing enough to stop the slaughter in that area.

A group of Tutsi exiles formed a rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which invaded Rwanda in 1990 and fighting continued until a 1993. The well-organised RPF, backed by Uganda’s army, gradually seized more territory, when its forces marched into the capital, Kigali.

After suffering its own genocide, Rwanda now contributes many personnel to UN Peace Keeping missions. “It is particularly commendable that a nation that has endured the worst atrocities should risk its soldiers to ensure those atrocities cannot happen elsewhere,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez.

The first Rwanda National Police (RNP) Peace Keeping Mission was deployed in 2005 when police officers were deployed to the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) later to be renamed United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). Over the last 15 years, more than 7700 Rwanda Police Officers have participated in peacekeeping operations across the globe of which 1400 of them are women.

President Kagame a military leader,has been in power since 2000 and hailed for transforming the tiny, devastated country he took over through policies which encouraged rapid economic growth.

He has also tried to turn Rwanda into a technological hub and is very active on Twitter.He won a third term in office in the election in 2017 with 98.63% of the vote.

Here perhaps he can emulate President Arias of Costa Rica to give up office. Prepare Nextgen leaders, leave power peacefullyand imprint of his legacy for his country and Africa.

Remember, there is always “Best by Before Date” not just for products we but also politicians we elect. “Leaders-for-life” rarely leave behind strong and viable institutions to face challenges, ensure political, economic and social stability.

(The author is Former Ambassador to Colombia and Ecuador, High Commissioner to Cyprus, Deputy Permanent Representative to the WTO and Deputy High Commissioner to Singapore. At the Ministry, he headed Multilateral Economic Relations, West Africa and East & Southern Africa Divisions. The views expressed are personal.)

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