22 February 2011

Greg Wyler 3

Motivated by a murder

Only three years ago, Wyler hardly could have found Rwanda on a map. The child of middle-class parents, he studied computer science at MIT. While still a student, he founded a company that produced sound damping equipment for computers. In his late twenties Wyler sold the company for $15 million and purchased an estate near Boston, where he could have retired with his wife and child. But everything changed for Wyler on one horrible night in October, four years ago, when he found his mother murdered in her apartment. He was convinced that the murderer was a member of his mother's immediate family, but he had no proof to support his suspicion. The crime has remained unsolved to this day.

Rwanda is "essentially an Internet island," with the only robust satellite uplinks in Africa's interior. The next step is to lay fiber-optic cable.
The death of his mother was devastating to Wyler, who desperately began searching for some new meaning to his life. He found what he was looking for at a friend's wedding, in a chance conversation with a government official from Rwanda. The man complained to Wyler about the prohibitive cost of Internet access in his country, for which a state-owned monopoly called Rwandatel was charging about $1,000 a month. Wyler had suddenly found the challenge he needed. He raised capital from investors and simply acquired Rwandatel. He fired half of its employees, installed state-of-the-art technology and lowered the cost of Internet access to a small fraction of what it was under Rwandatel.

The move triggered an avalanche. Practically overnight, what had been a tiny group of 22 Internet users with broadband access turned into thousands. Almost a third of a million Rwandans now have mobile phone service, provided either by Terracom or its competitor, MTN.

Wyler's four-wheel-drive office is now cruising through downtown Kigali, where roadside vendors sell sweets, old shoes and prepaid telephone cards. Rattling motorcycle taxis weave their way through heavy traffic. Construction cranes tower over new office complexes, parking garages and shopping centers. After all but collapsing in the wake of the 1994 genocide, the Rwandan economy has now recovered to pre-genocide levels.

Terracom has installed large satellite dishes on the outskirts of Kigali. The dishes, he says, are currently a bottleneck for the wireless flow of data in Rwanda, which still lacks a high-speed fiberoptic cable line to neighboring countries. While northern, western and southern Africa are served by underwater fiberoptic cables, similar access is nonexistent for large swathes of the eastern part of the continent. Rwanda is essentially an Internet island, with Terracom linked to the World Wide Web through one central satellite connection. This makes connecting to the Internet slower and more expensive than it could be.

"Countries like Germany had more than a century to develop what we must create ten times as quickly," says Romain Murenzi, Rwanda's Minister of Education, Science, Technology and Scientific Research. "We have almost no natural resources and no seaports in Rwanda, which leaves us only with the knowledge-based society."

Like many Rwandan politicians, Murenzi takes his laptop with him wherever he goes. It's a symbol of power and modernity. "Rwanda is like a vacuum," he explains. "If you stimulate it, it can produce an astonishing amount of energy." Murenzi holds a doctorate in physics from a Belgian university.

Quadrupling income by 2020?

The requisite flattering portrait of President Paul Kagame hangs on the wall in Murenzi's office. Many foreign observers hold a critical view of Kagame, the former military leader of the Tutsi rebels who, together with his army, put an end to the 1994 genocide. He is seen as a dictator of sorts, barring any political opposition, exploiting the mineral resources of neighboring Congo and maintaining an excessively large army.

Hilmar Schmundt / DER SPIEGEL
Rwanda's fiber-optic network needs to be buried by hand.
But even his critics agree that Kagame can be credited with stabilizing the country. He has also taken steps to stimulate the economy, mindful that unless he can create jobs his overpopulated country of eight million could descend into yet another wave of unrest. To further his goals, Kagame's cabinet is pursuing a master plan dubbed Vision 2020. "We intend to quadruple the average income by then, and communication networks can help us achieve that goal," says Murenzi, the science and technology minister.

The government already turns a profit from the wireless industry, says Murenzi, adding slyly: "Rwanda has a huge shadow economy for which no taxes are paid. But the state automatically earns 18 percent in value-added tax for each telephone call." Another advantage of the advent of mobile communication, according to Murenzi, is that "if people spend more time on the phone, they have less money left over to get drunk at night. This relieves pressures on the healthcare system."

Wyler is now sitting at the pool in the Hotel Mille Collines, made famous in the film "Hotel Rwanda." During the 1994 genocide, members of the Tutsi minority and their supporters sought refuge here from murderous Hutu bands, using the swimming pool as a source of drinking water. Wyler seems exhausted, finally feeling the effects of yesterday's late-night dinner with a group of cabinet ministers. For lunch, he drinks a Fanta.

His idealism constantly runs up against reality. The education minister has complained that Wyler's plan to connect all of Rwanda's secondary schools to the Internet by the end of November is behind schedule. The local press has been quick to criticize his program for what it perceives as excessively high prices and corruption.

Power outages are another recurring problem. They are so common in Rwanda that some supermarkets keep candles burning to be prepared for the next blackout. The country now plans to increase power production by more than 50 percent using methane gas deposits in Lake Kivu as an energy source.

Wyler is joined by Christopher Lundh, Terracom's CEO and a man with a reputation as an experienced troubleshooter. Wyler is convinced that Lundh is the right man to transform the business from a lofty vision into a solid company. "If Greg is the good cop, then I'm the bad one," says Lundh pleasantly.

Wyler seems relieved. He arrives at the airport an hour later to catch a flight home to his wife and family. When asked whether Rwanda will succeed in making the giant leap from an agrarian to a knowledge-based society, the new head of Terracom shrugs his shoulders. "We're developing a solid, profitable network. The region will have five or more Terracoms in a few years." Although the pioneering phase is gradually coming to a close, the toughest work still lies ahead for Wyler and his business.

Barefoot workers dig up the ground in front of the presidential palace. Freddy Kamuzinzi, a giant of a man, is supervising the work. Wyler's nickname for Kamuzinzi is "Freddy Fiber." A former fighter in the rebel army, he now manages up to 3,000 cable installers. "Machines are useless here. They require too much space, and we have to be extremely careful when we dig, because we're constantly running into power and water lines that were installed haphazardly in the past."

Kamuzinzi's men have already buried more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) of fiberoptic cable. In the coming weeks, his army of workers will install four times as much cable, finally providing Rwanda with a broadband connection to neighboring Tanzania and Uganda and eliminating the expensive satellite detour.

This is good news for Terracom. East Africa's Internet island is growing.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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