It’s easy to forget where you are when standing by the cappuccino machine on the sixth floor of the Telecom House in Kigali, Rwanda.
The Telecom House, as the building is known (most buildings in Rwanda don’t have addresses), is the center of Rwanda’s startup scene. The building houses Carnegie Mellon–Rwanda and kLab, one the country’s best-established incubators. Since the Telecom House lacks an address, visitors may get lucky and find a taxi driver who is familiar with the building, as I did several times. More likely, you’ll need to bring a map and tell taxi drivers to bring you to Kacyiru, the neighborhood where the Telecom House is located along with many government ministries and NGOs. Once you are in the correct neighborhood, you will have to guide the driver to the Telecom House, a gleaming office building that wouldn’t look out of place if it were dropped into a Silicon Valley office park.
kLab, an incubator and coworking space for tech entrepreneurs, takes up the Telecom House’s sixth floor. From kLab’s glass-walled rooms and rooftop deck, programmers and designers are able to work on a mix of government and NGO consulting projects while also tackling independent projects that often focus on developing new uses for SMS technology. kLab contains a mix of recent graduates from Rwanda’s universities and Americans and Brits who run tech companies in Rwanda and have adopted kLab as their office, since it is one of the best places to meet technically skilled Rwandans.
I spent many hours at kLab during my time in the country, talking with Rwandan entrepreneurs who have lived through their nation’s transformation. I also met with a number of government and World Bank officials who think about economic development, and professors like Michel Bezy, who focus on tech development. All of those conversations painted a picture of a country pushing hard to become a tech center in Africa.
Nic Pottier, one of the expats who can regularly be found in kLab, moved to Rwanda after working on algorithms at Amazon. He was searching for a change and was excited by the challenge of helping Rwanda develop. The small group of technically minded expats in Rwanda share similar motives behind their decision to uproot their families from the U.S. and the U.K. and head to Rwanda, a country few of them had previously spent considerable time in before their move. The Rwandan government’s ambitious plan to build a knowledge based economy in a country that was devastated by a genocide 20 years ago attracted expats like Pottier and has brought foreign investment from Visa, Nokia, Microsoft, and Carnegie Mellon.
Rwanda faces many challenges on the path to developing a tech sector, as the 1994 genocide destroyed almost all of the country’s infrastructure, and Rwanda has low levels of human capital development like many other African countries. But there seems to be a nationwide sense of vision in the country, and that has driven rapid development over the past decade.
Visitors to Rwanda will immediately notice the prevalence of the government, whose efficiency is a tremendous source of pride for Rwandans. Rwanda’s main international airport, Kigali International Airport, lacks the hassles common to air transit in the developing world such as scammers in parking lots waiting to take visitor’s bags and bring them for an overpriced cab ride. In fact, it is rare to wait more than 10 minutes to pass through customs.
Beyond the efficient government institutions and the police who line Kigali’s streets after 8 p.m. to ensure that people can comfortably walk around at night, Rwandans are acutely aware of their government’s programs and how Rwanda compares to other countries in reports like the World Bank’s Doing Business Survey, which ranked Rwanda as Africa’s top reformer in 2014.
President Kagame, Rwanda’s leader for the past 14 years and the chief architect behind Rwanda’s revival, has made entrepreneurship, especially tech-related entrepreneurship, a priority. He has reached out to foreign universities and companies like Visa, which decided to invest in Rwanda rather than its larger neighbors. Visa is helping Rwanda modernize its financial infrastructure and has introduced a mobile payment system to Rwanda, giving Rwandans a chance to learn from Visa engineers.
President Kagame has also pushed for developments like electronic business registration, which enable companies to be started in as little as three days compared to the 30 days required in Kenya, the 32 days required in Uganda, and the six days that starting a business in the USA takes.
The Rwandan government has made significant strides in developing the infrastructure needed to support a tech sector. The Rwandan Information Technology Authority (RITA) completed a national fiber-optic network a few months ago that has furthered the ability of Rwandans to learn about technology and develop related businesses. In addition to widespread and quick Internet access, the Rwandan government is addressing the country’s limited access to computers. Rwanda’s One Laptop Per Child program has resulted in thousands of laptops in schools around the country.
Despite these impressive accomplishments, Rwanda is continually held back by its past and must struggle to move forward. While schools now have laptops, Rwanda’s electricity infrastructure is underdeveloped as it was completely destroyed in 1994, and schools have very few outlets. Many laptops cannot be charged due to the lack of available power, a problem that also afflicts businesses, government offices, and homes where electronics often sit uncharged.
People frequently have to send their electronics to different towns with bicyclists in order to have their laptops or cell phones charged. While the Rwandan government is working to increase access to affordable power, progress has been slow due to the cost of improving Rwanda’s power infrastructure.
Education & Entrepreneurship
Rwandan entrepreneurs recognize that their knowledge of the needs of East Africans, which has many similarities with the needs of people throughout the developing world, gives them an opportunity to develop technology that can compete in the developing world with Western companies. Rwandans aspire to create the next M-Pesa, a mobile money platform from Kenya with tens of millions of users that, while not technically complex, required an understanding of the limitations and the needs of people in the developing world.
The challenge of creating technology that reflects Rwanda’s local context, along with the opportunity to develop technical talent that can drive East Africa’s technology sector forward, convinced Carnegie-Mellon University to open Carnegie Mellon–Rwanda in 2012 and gives Rwandan entrepreneurs an opportunity to create tech that will be adopted throughout the developing world.
The challenges that technology faces in Africa, from limited tablet, computer or laptop penetration to weak intellectual property laws, push Africans to innovate, as much of the technology created in the West cannot work in Africa. Africa’s mobile-only mindset, along with a lack of legacy technology that often restricts innovation (consider, for example, how credit card companies in the U.S. lobby to prevent the development of mobile money services), requires African entrepreneurs to focus on developing simple mobile services designed for small and medium-sized businesses.
Rwanda’s tech sector has been able to develop rapidly due to how accessible knowledge has become to anyone with an Internet connection. Aspiring Rwandan developers understand that Rwandan universities, with the exception of Carnegie Mellon–Rwanda, will not prepare them to become programmers. Rwandans instead have turned to edX, OpenCourseWare, and Coursera and learn from MIT and Stanford professors. In addition, Carnegie Mellon–Rwanda, kLab and a new incubator, Think, which was funded by Millicom, an international telecom company, enable Rwandan entrepreneurs to talk with and be mentored by experienced programmers and entrepreneurs.
Rwanda’s tech sector has been able to jump ahead of where it would have been through only organic development due to all of that international support. Those resources, along with a desire to prove to the world that Rwanda has been transformed, have helped Rwandans start technology companies that can make the products Rwandans and the other 150 million East Africans need.
One of Rwanda’s early success stories is TorQue, a cloud-based inventory and distribution management company, founded by Jean Niyotwagira in 2013. TorQue was designed to be a simple platform that enables Rwandan businesses to move away from relying on pen and paper or Excel to run a business and to track operations. In the past year, TorQue has gained traction within Rwanda’s business community, and the company has expanded to neighboring countries.
TextIt, a software development tool created by Nyaruka, Nic Pottier’s company, is another of Rwanda’s growing tech tools. TextIt enables people who don’t have extensive programming backgrounds to create SMS applications. TextIt has become a customer relationship tool in Rwanda as businesses use it to ask their customers questions on their shopping experience and their preferences. The tool lets business owners who don’t have a tech background create personalized questions, and the platform makes it easy to collect data to inform business decisions.
Rwandan entrepreneurs are looking to address a massive market that the West struggles to understand. They are working to fill the gap between the basic tools that have been used for decades in the developing world and the advanced and expensive solutions offered by Western tech companies.
When looking at Rwanda, one needs to track both relative and absolute progress. Yes, Rwanda’s tech sector has made tremendous strides over the past few years, but it is still far from competing with the developed world. Rwanda still lags behind Nigeria and Kenya’s tech sector in many ways, although Rwanda does offer a more stable environment and is rapidly catching up to the long established leading nations of tech in Africa.
While Rwanda’s startup ecosystem has made tremendous strides in the past few years, it is still very much in its beginning stages. There are serious challenges to overcome, including the limited access to affordable electricity and a lack of computer science classes in middle and high schools, but Rwandans are coming up with ways around those problems. The country faces a unique opportunity to become a tech center in Africa and an example for the developing world.
Ben Fischberg used to live in Rwanda before becoming an investment banker at Bank of America Merrill Lynch where he focuses on the technology sector. Prior to advising technology companies, he previously ran Hesperus Enterprises, an analytics start-up and worked at Peak XV Capital, an emerging markets investment firm, which initially brought him to East Africa. While now living in New York, Ben continues to work with tech companies in Rwanda. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.