How a digital local government services portal is saving Rwandans time and money
Ten years ago, 58-year-old Pascaline Nikuze was required to leave her home in Ngarama Sector, Gatsibo district in Eastern Province at 3am in the morning to ensure that she made it to the Kiramuruzi sector office to start the long process to acquire a passport.Today, all Nikuze requires is a smartphone or laptop and a good internet connection to log into the IremboGov portal, apply, pay the required fees, and have any document that she needs at her disposal automatically, or within 72 hours.
Launched in July 2015, IremboGov is a government to citizen web-based platform that allows citizens and foreigners to seamlessly apply for and pay for a range of public services including community-based health insurance, driving test registration, visa, and national ID applications, among others. As of January 2020, at least 98 non-fiscal services representing 19 government ministries and agencies were available on the platform.
Irembo relies heavily on citizen integrated data that is already available in the government database to deliver services to over eight million Rwandans both at home and in the diaspora. In turn, this contributes to the government’s plan to eventually go paperless.
At a recent launch of the redesigned platform, the minister of ICT Paula Ingabire told journalists that Irembo aims to reduce the steps that citizens go through to access services online to a minimum. “The end goal is making sure that the services are efficient, cost effective and accessible to all of our citizens,” she said.
Although there are many other services, local government services such as marriage, birth and single status certificates are some of the most requested services on the platform, contributing over 20% of all applications on Irembo.
Additionally, of the 3,000 government officials that log onto the Irembo platform to serve citizens, 60% are specifically local government officers who digitally sign the documents applied for by citizens.
Since its launch, IremboGov has grown from processing one million service applications in 2017, to 8 million in 2020. By early 2020, about 200,000 to 300,000 service requests were being successfully processed each month through the platform.
TheIrembo e-portal has been praised for its instrumental contribution in bridging the government to citizen service delivery gap. It has also lowered corruption rates due to the elimination of human-to-human contact. However some challenges remain.
The platform being web-based means that for one to use it, they should be well versed with at least some basic smart phone use and they should easily be able to connect to the internet.
According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 62.2% of the Rwandan population have active internet use, 36.6% are covered but still not connected while 1.1% are not connected at all.
Sylvie Nsanga holds a Master’s degree in sustainable international development with a focus on ICT for development and is a digital inclusion activist based in Rwanda. Nsanga says that the government’s decision to go paperless in the country risks raising concerns about how inclusive their decision is. “We are a country of millions of people who are illiterate. We are talking about people who don’t know what an email address is. If someone doesn’t know how to write or use a smartphone, they may not be able to communicate. They are forced to use agents who not only charge them, but they retain their private information. That poses a risk,” she explained. When it comes to bridging the digital divide, we have a very big gap in terms of access, usage, empowerment. We tend to focus on infrastructure and policy. It is very important that we highlight these gaps so that all the financing in our institutions should go into empowering citizens digitally.
Nsanga says that while the strides made by the government of Rwanda towards its goal to be the regional ICT hub are commendable, there is need to go back to the drawing board when it comes to bridging the digital gap. “For a country to drive a digital economy, it must first invest in digital inclusion. This means giving the citizens access to the right tools, the right devices, giving them the skills to use those devices, and empowering them. Empowering them is very important,” she said.
The digital gap means that a significant number of citizens are unable to access Irembo services without the support of one of the 4,000 Irembo agents spread across the country. As a result, they have no option but to pay between a $2 and $5 service fee which many can hardly afford.
An end in sight
In 2019, the city of Kigali joined ASToN (the African Smart Town Network, a group of 11 African cities using digital tools to overcome local and global challenges. According to the Kigali ASToN coordinator Pulicano Ayebazibwe, the city designed a digital divide project. It aims to engage young people (16 to 35 years) by using ICT to promote civic participation and social connectedness as a pathway to enhanced services.
Ayebazibwe says that the city of Kigali conducted a preliminary research to identify thecurrent situation, key challenges, opportunities, and key recommendations of how to deal with the digital divide.
“The research found that indeed there was a digital divide and identified issues like inadequate internet access, lack of knowledge transfer of basic IT skills, poor software application development and poor access to technology equipment like smartphones, printers and scanners,” he said.
As a result, a project named “Bridging the digital divide among the youth” was initiated and is working to ensure that more young people get the digital skills that they need to access such services that are offered by Irembo.
He explains that although the city of Kigali is the capital of Rwanda, at least 70% of its population is rural.
As a result, he continued that although most of the government services they seek are online, many cannot access them because of digital illiteracy. “Either you will find that the whole family has no smartphone or even if they own one, they do not know how to use it well enough. Instead, they will send their children walking long distances to acquire digital services from an agent at a fee. It is important that we empower people with digital skills especially around Irembo services to save them all those challenges,” he said.
Ayebazibwe said the digital gaps faced in rural areas also affect many parts of the city.
However, he further explained that ASToN has conducted a problem assessment, put together an action plan and then chosen to set up a computer laboratory in one of the rural sectors as a pilot project. “The centre is open, and we are now furnishing it with all the necessary equipment. We are communicating to the citizens to take up the opportunities that this computer laboratory offers,” he said. The center will offer government public and administrative services such as Irembo services where they can apply for marriage certificates and notarise different administrative documents. It will also have a desk offering financial and secretariat services such as mobile money, payment services, scanning and printing services. Additionally, it will offer youths ICT courses such as Microsoft Office and others.
ASToN will cover all the costs around the laboratory for the length of the experimentation phase for sustainability purposes, the training may be free, but the other services offered by Irembo will be offered at a subsidised rate.
He pointed out that memorandums of understanding with IT trainers DOT Rwanda have already been signed. Their digital ambassadors provide IT training, how to use Irembo services and many more so that these skills and services get to as many people as possible. He said that currently, the city of Kigali and ASToN are working on the monitoring tool that will be used to follow-up and evaluate the centre’s activities. “Our plan is to ensure that people are empowered and equipped with the right training and skills so that they can use technology to improve their livelihoods,” he said.
Before the end of the year,ASToN and the city of Kigali will evaluate the centre and if it is successful, the latter will then roll out the same model to the other ten rural sectors.
Written by By Nasra Bishumba