Clement Uwajeneza, chief executive officer of RwandaOnline, the operator of the Rwandan government's online portal Irembo, speaks during an interview on June 6, 2017, in Kigali, Rwanda. Irembo targets to expand to 100 services by the end of 2017, and eventually make available 500 services online. (Xinhua/Lyu Tianran)
by Xinhua writers Wu Zhiqiang and Lyu Tianran
KIGALI, June 11 (Xinhua) -- Lievin Rwamwaga had his birth certificate and criminal record clearance certificate issued not at a government office, but while visiting with his middle school buddy, Ngoga Aphrodis Niyomugabo.
Niyomugabo, 31, owns Galaxy Cyber Cafe, an internet bar just blocks away from the United States Embassy and the Presidential Office in Gasabo, a district in downtown Kigali, the Rwandan capital.
Galaxy is one of 1,500 internet cafes hired by Irembo, the Rwandan government's online portal, to extend information services to citizens who do not own a smart phone, or have no access to computers.
Nyomugabo's younger brother, Eric, was registered as an Irembo agent. Irembo means gateway or door in the local Kinyarwanda language.
Clement Uwajeneza, chief executive officer of RwandaOnline, the operator of Irembo, said eventually a total of 2,200 agents will be hired so that there is at least one agent present within a radius of 3 km all across the central African country.
Just a little over two years into operation, Irembo now offers 50 services online to citizens and businesses, the most popular ones including birth certification, marriage certification, child registration, application for national ID, and registration for driving tests.
Irembo targets to expand to 100 services by the end of 2017, and eventually make available 500 services online, Uwajeneza said.
"Our mandate is to move Rwandans to access government services in a faster, less costly and more convenient way," he said. "We do that by integrating information and communication technology (ICT) across the value chain of government service provision."
Irembo also uses USSD, or unstructured supplementary service data, to enable those with no internet connection to access its services through basic mobile phones.
As more services get digitized and become available online, the way government agencies operate is also being streamlined, thanks to their interaction with RwandaOnline, which has a team of about 65 full-time employees dedicated to Irembo development, Uwajeneza said.
Irembo also helps advance government efforts to root out corruption.
"In the past, people could demand hash money, but through Irembo, everything leaves a digital trail," said Rwamwaga, the 29-year-old friend of Niyomugabo, the internet bar owner. "All the transactions are transparent."
At Galaxy Cyber Cafe, the agent helps Irembo users with applications for free. The customers only have to pay 500 Rwanda francs (about 0.6 U.S. dollars) a page if extra documents need to be scanned.
As RwandaOnline rolls out more services on Irembo and more people become aware, expectations are running high, said CEO Uwajeneza. "We now start to face more requests for simplification and faster service."
"The objective is to considerably reduce the hurdles to accessing government services... and to some extent, making the government offices more accountable," he said.
In addition to serving citizens living inside the country, Irembo also facilitates the needs of Rwandans overseas and foreigners.
Irembo has yet to launch apps on the Android and IOS platforms, but there is a small Android-based app that helps users track the nearest agents, Uwajeneza said.
There are also plans to open up the Irembo system so that other developers could create applications to plug into the Irembo platform, he said.
The emergence and expansion of Irembo is also a manifestation of Rwanda's endeavors to develop a service-based economy and become an ICT leader in the region.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame is a co-chair of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, a world body set up by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
High-speed 4G mobile services are being rolled out, and a 2,300 km fiber optic cable network is in place across the country, but Rwanda still faces a daunting task in making e-government and other services widely accessible to all citizens, especially those in rural, outlying areas.
As one of the world's least developed countries, the number of Rwandans living under poverty stood at 39.1 percent in 2014, although the rate was cut by 5.8 percentage points from the 44.9 percent posted in 2011, according to the United Nations Development Program.