KIGALI, Rwanda — Generally, when a patient needs an emergency blood transfusion in rural Rwanda, they had better hope it isn’t the rainy season. Country hospitals here don’t have the resources – or regular electricity – to maintain blood banks. So when doctors desperately need blood to save a patient’s life, they are often forced to wait upwards of five hours for a jeep to make the trek from a central distribution center. The delivery trucks must traverse steep dirt roads pitted with enormous potholes, and temporary bridges made of a few pieces of wood laid across gaping ravines. During the rainy season, the trek is almost impossible, as torrential rains wash out the flimsy roads.
But in western Rwanda, doctors have another option: They can send a text message to Zipline, and within 20 minutes, a red package delivered by drone will gently float to the ground on a white parachute outside the hospital, the blood nestled inside.
Rwanda is poised on the frontier of socially inspired high-tech. The country has to contend with many of the developing-world challenges endemic to Africa, but unlike other countries, its government supports infrastructure for technology initiatives that attempt to solve those problems. Israeli companies are part of the trend of international and local tech companies jumping into the startup scene in Kigali, which reflects many of the same reasons for Israel’s prioritizing of technology as the country grew.
On Thursday, Rwanda marks 23 years since the 1994 genocide, when more than a million people were killed during 100 days of ethnic fighting. Young people in the tech sector are confident that technology is one of the ways Rwanda can step out of the shadow of its past into the future.
“As a country, we don’t have as many natural resources as other African countries, and being a landlocked country, we have so many natural disadvantages that do not allow our economy to go to the next level to be a middle-class country,” explained Pacifique Hallellua, the community director at K-Lab, a government-supported tech innovation hub in Kigali. “When we look at what technology has enabled in other countries, it has really changed so many peoples’ lives.”
“The government is trying to make the country into something called a knowledge-based economy,” Hallellua continued. “Knowledge is intangible — you don’t have to exploit anything from the soil. By making technology a priority, you can grow the economy exponentially with something that will grow faster than any other thing.”
By the end of 2015, the Rwandan government had registered 4,169 small- and medium-sized “ICT companies.” ICT stands for information, communications and technology, and is the local terminology for startup. The figure includes any independent companiy connected to technology, from cellphone stores to internet cafes to more traditional startups like SMS Media, which pioneered SMS-based news reports and advertisements in 2002.
That support is also attracting international investment, including from Israel.
“What pushed me there is that there’s an atmosphere of innovation that is really being advanced by the government,” said Guy Cherni, the co-founder of 42Kura, an Israeli-Rwandan educational track for African high-tech companies.
There are four big business hubs in Africa: Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria. “Rwanda is a small country, landlocked, with no natural resources, so their connection to these economic hubs has to be technological,” he said. Rwanda is practicing “innovation out of necessity,” the same concept that propels many of Israel’s technological advances despite the country’s lack of natural resources and its precarious geopolitical situation, Cherni added.
I’ll take a coffee and a business license, please
When the Rwandan government made a concentrated effort to encourage new businesses, its first objective was to streamline the process of applying for a business license. The process can take months in surrounding countries, as well as hefty bribes to a number of entities, which can discourage first-time business owners. In Rwanda the streamlined process takes place in a single building and can generally be completed in three hours or less.
“You go to an office, drop off your application, go to lunch, maybe have a coffee after lunch, and when you come back you have a business license,” said Jon Stever, an American who founded a startup hub called The Office. Two Rwandan partners joined Stever as The Office expanded, eventually morphing into Impact Hub Kigali, part of a global network of Impact Hub coworking spaces.
Rwanda places a strong emphasis on innovation, even at the low-tech level such as agriculture, requiring that all high school graduates complete an “entrepreneurship class” before graduating. At the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in eastern Rwanda, the educators decided that the government entrepreneurship course was too theoretical and didn’t give their students enough practical tools to start their own company, so they partnered with the MasterCard Foundation and TechnoServ for the STRYDE (Strengthening Rural Youth Development Through Enterprise) project for their Entrepreneurship Club.
Sam Kalimba, a Senior 6 (12th grade) student at Agahozo Shalom, plans to open a watermelon farm with the knowledge that he gleaned from the course. “In Rwanda, we have an issue that most youth are unemployed,” said Kalimba. Almost 60% of the population is 24 or younger. “What’s the best way to solve this? Create jobs. This unemployment can only be tackled if we work on youth entrepreneurship, so the youth can create our own jobs and maybe employ others. It’s the difference between being a job seeker versus a job creator.”
That attitude is what drives many young people in Rwanda to try their luck in the high-tech sector, even when they do not have a lot of experience.
“Of course change is always a big problem, but one thing that’s good about Rwanda — if you’re providing something that eases their life in a type of way, people are ready to embrace it,” said Patrick Nsenga Buchana, the founder and CEO of AC Group, one of Rwanda’s biggest tech success stories. The company developed a smart card for public transportation that is compatible with Kigali’s chaotic urban transport system. “People are getting excited about [technology], and at the end of the day, there’s a lot of innovation coming their way. Not all of the innovation is solving problems, but it’s much easier to pitch something new to people now than it was three or five years ago,” he said.
“Here in Rwanda, we are trying to build the country, and everyone needs to do something to contribute to development,” explained Gladys Inabeza, who is developing a website called “Hitamo,” which means “to choose” in Kinyarwanda. It’s a local version of Yelp that lets people compare services like banks, insurance, mobile plans, and buses, so they can access enough information to make informed decisions. Inabeza works on her business at K-Lab, surrounded by young people wearing the international hipster uniform of skinny pants and colorful shoes. She is a graduate of a few government-sponsored hackathons.
Her latest app, “Guruza,” a peer-to-peer money lending program, won one of the hackathons in 2016, but the company ran into issues regarding insuring the loans, so she and her partners put it on hold until banking regulations can catch up with their technology.
“[The government] does a lot of competitions for startups, and the winner gets an amount of money to start the company,” she said. “The government also helps us find investors.”
One serious challenge that tech investors mention frequently is the lack of venture capital available for Rwandan startups. Startups that need serious influxes of cash in their nascence are forced to look abroad, where few people in the country have the resources or connections to get the required funding.
In part to answer that challenge, Rwanda has started a $100 million venture capital investment vehicle called Rwanda Innovation Fund. The government is funding 30 percent and private international venture capitalists are putting up the rest of the money. The purpose of the fund is to invest in “early growth innovative technology,” according to Emmanuel Habumuremyi, the adviser to Jean Philbert Nsengimana, the minister of youth and ICT, the branch of the government dedicated to promoting technology.
The Ministry of ICT merged with the Ministry of Youth in 2012 as part of a plan to encourage the country’s youth to adopt technology as a way for them to take charge of development and create jobs for themselves. K-Lab, which started in 2012, is located across the hall from the ministry.
“The government of Rwanda believes that innovation flourishes when led by the private sector,” said Habumuremyi. “But the role of government is always there to ensure the ecosystems are growing in good conditions.” Rwanda also offers a special visa for “Entrepreneurship in Information Technology,” which is easier to obtain than the traditional business visa, to encourage international tech specialists to work in the country.
Another challenge is the still-growing tech culture. “[Our parents] had no technology,” said Hallellua. “So if someone wants to go into entrepreneurship, sometimes things don’t materialize the next day. If you go into a field and you plant a banana tree, you see it the next day. Because people are dealing with intangible products, it’s not easy to convince the environment to accept it.” He said that even while people are starting to warm up to the idea of tech companies, they are still struggling to find support in an economy where 90% of the population works in agriculture.
“This is in contrast to Tel Aviv, where if a young man says, ‘I’m working on this application,’ the parents have been exposed to this technology and have witnessed how technology can evolve people’s lives, so you have their support,” said Hallellua. “Maybe it’s not even the financial support, but the environment that says, ‘Keep going, keep working.’”
Made in Africa
AC Group started as a solution to a simple problem – bus companies were losing up to 30% of their profits because there were no records of the ticket transactions and sellers were pocketing a cut. The company created a Tap&Go smartcard program, which now covers 75% of Kigali’s bus routes, and has expanded to Cameroon with future plans for Ghana and Ethiopia. “If I do something and it works in Rwanda, most likely it’s going to work in a number of countries, because the challenges of developing cities are pretty much the same things,” said Nsenga Buchana, the company’s CEO. “We have some countries at the moment that always think that the best stuff has to come from Europe or the US. They do not trust a fellow African, which is very strange.”
He noted that the elasticity of technology allows countries to adapt solutions and quickly apply them to other countries, with small cultural modifications. The bus system in Rwanda is similar to Cameroon’s, while light years away from the London Tube system.
“There’s a lot of potential in Rwanda; it’s small just like Israel, but there’s a huge market out there in the rest of Africa,” he said. “For any country that wants to start in Africa, Rwanda is the best place to have headquarters because of the organization, and the security.”
Rwanda remains popular with international companies and nongovernmental organizations because it is much safer and easier to do business there than in neighboring countries. In the 23 years since the genocide, Rwanda has developed at a rate far exceeding anyone’s expectations. Its steady 8% annual growth in GDP over the past 15 years has catapulted it beyond its struggling neighbors, and it is now an orderly country with excellent roads, spotless cities, almost no corruption, and effective government institutions.
Some international groups such as Amnesty International and the European Union argue that the government is a little too effective — in 2015, 98% of Rwandans voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that enables President Paul Kagame, in power since 2000, to run for additional terms, possibly until 2034. The international community roundly condemned the vote, and US president Barack Obama called it “a first step down a perilous path” in a speech to the African Union.
Kagame is widely celebrated in the international arena for his development work, and he spoke at the AIPAC conference in March. However, there is no freedom of press in the country, and the government tightly controls many aspects of daily life, including requiring monthly community service.
Despite government commitment to technology initiatives, there are still a number of hurdles. The country is laying the infrastructure to have fiber-optic high-speed internet access across the country. Currently internet access is intermittent and slow, including in Kigali.
Even when the infrastructure is ready, computers and internet connections will still be prohibitively expensive for regular Rwandans. The average income in Rwanda is $718 per year, or less than $2 per day.
About 70% of Rwandans have cellphones, but just 20% have internet access.
The cost of smartphones has plunged in recent years, and affordable ones can cost around $20, Hallellua said. But internet data for smartphones is more expensive in Rwanda than in surrounding countries, and most people buy it on a pay-as-you-go basis for about $1 per gigabyte.
More people are building web apps and internal software rather than phone apps, because smartphones are still not as common outside of Kigali, said Hallellua.
“Rwanda is a test kitchen,” said Stever, the co-founder of The Office, the trendy co-working space in downtown Kigali, which is filled with potted plants and the gentle sound of tapping on keyboards. “You can pilot new ideas here and then transfer them to the region,” he said. “We need to build more grown-in-Africa businesses.”
‘Rwanda is a test kitchen. You can pilot new ideas here and then transfer them to the region’
Like many expats in Rwanda, Stever originally came to work on development projects. But he soon became disillusioned with the process of the nonprofit development world, feeling it didn’t provide enough opportunities for leadership, community ownership, or accountability for regular Rwandans. “I wanted [The Office] to be the opposite of a development project, with no top-down funding,” he said. He and his two partners started four years ago with $10,000 of their own money, 70 square meters of office space, and basically “bootstrapped to take over the entire building,” he said.
Today, the company is stable, and has provided space for more than a dozen Rwandan businesses to start. It is now part of the international network of Impact Hubs, which runs co-working spaces around the world. Impact Hub Kigali runs a rooftop bar and meeting space. During a recent week, daily activities at the rooftop ranged from a jazz-African fusion concert to a salsa class to a photography exhibit to a networking event with international investors. “We want anything that brings creative, entrepreneurial people together,” said Stever. “It’s part of Rwanda’s DNA. This is a super-ambitious country.”
Back to School
Israel Bimpe works at The Office, surrounded by other members of Rwanda’s budding high-tech scene, but he isn’t a programmer. “As a pharmacist, my primary role is ensuring that everyone gets access to the right medicine at the right price,” he said. “The disparity that happens when someone is living far away and how they access medicine or diagnostic services or any essential health commodity is something that really touched me.”
Bimpe, 24, is the Rwanda Country manager at Globhe, a company that coordinates between medical drone providers in different countries. Rather than spending his days hunched over a keyboard writing code, Bimpe works as a negotiator between the government’s health and aviation ministries and international companies that provide drone services. In Rwanda, the Netherlands-based Globhe works with Zipline, an American company that provides the drone service. “It’s very delicate on how they regulate those services, but what I like about working in Rwanda is that the government is willing to venture into these types of initiatives,” he said.
However, the government support needs to be backed up by improved education and skills, Bimpe said. He noted that all of the skilled drone technicians in his company currently come from abroad, because Rwanda doesn’t have the educational facilities to train people to work on drones.
Bimpe said he welcomed the many American and European universities opening campuses in Rwanda as a study-abroad option that also offers many opportunities to Rwandan students. Carnegie Mellon University has a campus just below K-Lab, in the same building as the Ministry of Youth and ICT (Information, Communication, Technology).
The international emphasis is a good catalyst as the Rwandan educational system struggles to educate the growing population. “The [government] curricula are sometimes way outdated,” said Hallellua. “[Politicians] need to reverse the education system, to teach people how to practically solve humanity’s problems, not just write concept papers that are theoretical.”
“It’s a bit embarrassing when you go to other part of the world and the first thing people say about you is, ‘Oh, you’re from Rwanda? Didn’t the genocide happen there? Why did it happen?’” said Hallellua. “Technology will be the best way to rebrand Rwanda. It’s about us standing up to show how far Rwanda has come.”
K-Lab has the goal to help 15 companies per year make it into the local market. Since the co-working space launched four years ago, 64 companies associated with K-Lab have become viable. K-Lab also started Fablab, a space across the hall filled with things like laser cutters and 3D printers, for making hardware and other tech inventions.
In the next 10 years, K-Lab wants to see 100 companies each valued at over $50 million. Hallellua notes that would add $5 billion to the economy, when the current GDP is about $7 to 8 billion.
The government already utilizes an e-government portal called Irembo (“Gateway”), which enables citizens to fill out forms for things like birth certificates, visas, and driver’s licenses without visiting a government office. Because computer access and literacy are low, there are blue Irembo kiosks scattered throughout villages, where people can come to fill out the applications at a public computer with the help of a trained assistant.
“The genocide is past, now we are growing up and we are trying to overcome the effect of the genocide so we can build the country like they used to dream,” said Inabeza, of the Hitamo website, Rwanda’s version of Yelp. “The genocide was a lesson for all of us — although the problem is that 25 years ago we were not born yet, so we don’t know how the country used to be [before the genocide]. We see throughout history that technology has helped people,” she said. “Technology is one of the things that will help the country to grow very quickly, and help us get a new name.”
On the top floor of Impact Hub, more than 200 people danced to the sounds of the the popular Kinga Blues band at a weekly free Monday night concert. A visiting modern dance class from Kenya broke up the dance floor as the lights of Kigali twinkled in the distance, tracing the rolling horizon of the hilly city.
“It’s a beautiful country, the most beautiful country you can travel to,” said Bimpe. “We share with Israel, in many ways, our past histories, and the resilience is what kept us strong after the very drastic moments that each of our communities went through.
“When people hear ‘genocide,’ that’s the only thing they can remember, but that’s only retrospective,” he added. “If they look at Rwanda again, they will see the stats of the development that’s being done. We are striving to bring solutions to the problems in our communities and not backing down from the challenges of what the world is bringing us.”