Reinventing Rwanda: how the startup ecosystem in Kigali offers new opportunity
Launched in 2012, YourStory's Book Review section features over 320 titles on creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and digital transformation. See also our related columns The Turning Point, Techie Tuesdays, and Storybites.
The Startup Guide series of books, launched in 2014 by Copenhagen-based publisher Sissel Hansen, covers over 40 cities around the world. See our reviews of the guidebooks for New York, Berlin, Zurich, Paris, Barcelona, Stockholm, Johannesburg, Cairo, Nairobi, Tokyo, Bangkok, and Singapore.
Startup Guide Kigali is spread across 180 pages and makes for an informative and inspiring read, with profiles of founders, co-working spaces, incubators, and other ecosystem players. The whole book series is insightful, superbly illustrated, and well-designed.
“Rwanda is a small country, but by thinking bigger than its borders, it’s quickly becoming an important African tech hub,” Sissel Hansen begins.
The government has invested in the Kigali Innovation City initiative, and the Rwandan capital is host to conferences like Africa Tech Summit and Transform Africa. The World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 report ranked Rwanda as the second-highest-rated African country, after Mauritius.
“Kigali is home to roughly 1.29 million inhabitants, of which 60 percent is youth,” observes Sangwa Rwabuhihi, General Manager of Westerwelle Startup Haus Kigali. The government is actively digitalising its service, and higher learning institutions are supporting entrepreneurs as well.
Rwanda has a population of around 12 million, and the East African Community has a population of over 150 million. Recent notable startups include Rwanda Biosolution (in the farming industry), Exuus (fintech), and Charis (drones to identify and spray mosquito breeding sites).
One section of the book provides an overview of the city’s overall business climate, such as starting a business (“remarkably easy”), cost of living (affordable), people (warm, friendly), transportation (excellent bus network; apps like Yego and VW Move), environment (green), and weather (perfect).
Mobile Internet access is provided by operators MTN and Airtel. The national language is Kinyarwanda, and English is widely spoken.
“After living through some very dark days, this small country is definitely on the rise,” the authors observe. “There is a general sense of hope, solidarity and positivity about the future in Rwanda, but recognition of its tragic history can’t be ignored,” they add.
Rwanda ranks ninth in the world in gender equality, according to the 2020 Global Gender Gap Index. Women reportedly represent 43.2 percent of entrepreneurs in Kigali.
I. Startup profiles
One section of the book profiles nine startups based in Kigali, with inspiring origin stories and business descriptions. They include Awesomity Lab (web and mobile app solutions) and Imagine We (storytelling platform for local authors).
BeneFactors is a factoring company that provides working capital solutions for SMEs. Fintech Exuus has created a digital platform to empower community savings through user-friendly ledger handling.
Charis UAS provides drone imagery and analytics for intelligent decision making. Kasha is an ecommerce platform for women’s health and self-care products. BAG Innovation combines AI and gamification to provide career guidance for students.
My Green Home is a social enterprise that uses sand and plastic waste to create durable paving bricks. Rwanda Biosolution offers affordable and restorative organic fertiliser.
Some of the founders benefitted from awards and challenges like Rwanda Tech Seal, RDB Business Excellence Awards, Gov UX challenge, Tigo Digital Changemakers grant, Green Growth Innovation Award, Commonwealth Innovation Award, and UNICEF and Airtel pitch competition.
Support was also provided by Social Impact Incubator Rwanda, Sorenson Impact Foundation, East Africa Investments, The Case for Her, Elumelu Foundation, and FinnFund.
II. Startup ecosystem
One section of the book profiles eight entrepreneurship support organisations, ranging from incubators to accelerators.
For example 250STARTUPS has a six-month support programme for early-stage tech startups. Graduates include O’Genius Panda (ed-tech startup for science) and Olado (ecommerce for local products).
BPN (Business Professionals Network) was founded in Bern, Switzerland, and its Rwanda unit has a programme for 30 promising SMEs each year. Its success stories include shoe company Uzuri K&Y.
Business consultancy Challenges Group (founded in 1999) established Challenges Rwanda in 2017, and has supported SMEs and cooperatives in sectors like coffee.
Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT) was launched in 2001, and its Rwandan branch opened in 2010 with a focus on job creation and gender empowerment. Its initiatives include the DOT Youth Leadership Programme.
Founded in 2012, Inkomoko Entrepreneur Development is an affiliate of the US-based African Entrepreneur Collective. It has worked with around 700 SMEs in Rwanda, creating more than 2,500 jobs.
Founded in 2013, Resonate supports women entrepreneurs through its programmes for Action Leadership, Professional Development, and Storytelling for Leadership.
Other initiatives include G5 Business Makers Programme (launched in 2018) and Hanga Ahazaza (“create the future”), launched in 2018 by the Mastercard Foundation.
Managers of these institutes offer a number of tips for founders, ranging from mindset to market share. Entrepreneurs should be curious, creative, and agile, and respond to changing market needs.
Their vision and ventures should be scalable and expand outside Rwanda as well, with a positive social impact.
Founders should be collaborative, and focus on working prototypes. The team should leverage technology and include solid financial management. Aspiring entrepreneurs should be willing to learn all the time, and be prepared to build long-lasting business relationships.
III. Co-working spaces
Kigali has a number of co-working spaces, five of which are profiled in the book – such as WAKA, which is also equipped with a gym and basketball court.
FabLab Rwanda was founded in 2016 with collaborators such as the Rwanda Development Board and Japan International Cooperation Agency.
Government-funded kLab was launched in 2012, and offers a 500-strong mentorship community. Its general manager Aphrodice Mutangana is also a co-initiator of Future Coders, Incike Initiative and the Refugee School of Coding.
The Impact Hub network, headquartered in Vienna, launched its Kigali centre in 2015. Launched in 2018, Westerwelle Startup Haus Kigali also has a makerspace and offers a six-month entrepreneurship programme.
IV. Expert insights
One section of the book provides tips from two experts, covering customer experience and ecosystem connections.
Technology can help handle some of the supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Hardeep Sound, Regional Leader, East Africa, SAP. He advises founders to leverage existing technology, invest in their employees, and develop a customer-centric culture.
“The youth are putting their focus and energy into non-traditional ways of doing business – creating wealth but also addressing social issues,” observes Liana Nzabampema, Senior Program Officer, Segal Family Foundation.
“Learn from your failures. It’s okay to fail when building your startup, just keep failing forward, learning and growing,” she advises. Founders should do their own research for in-depth understanding of customers and their problems. They should have patience and cultivate a community for their long journey.
V. Founder advice
The book features interviews with founders of four startups. The profiled founders trace their entrepreneurial journeys, lessons learnt, and tips for the next wave of aspiring entrepreneurs.
“You have to be humble enough to accept simple beginnings and slow growth. At the same time, you should also be ambitious enough to envision major gains and massive growth,” advises Christelle Kwizera, Founder of Water Access Rwanda.
The startup is building a borehole-fed rural water mini-grid. Empathy, an understanding of ecosystems, and the courage to challenge the status quo are also key, she adds.
Founders should have an abundance mindset, and work towards win-win scenarios. Team members should have a have a high level of self-awareness and clarity of purpose, advises Clarisse Iribagiza, Founder of DMM.HeHe. The startup offers geo-location tech services to optimise SME supply chains.
“You have to build a value chain and infrastructure partners,” recommends Henri Nyakarundi, Founder and MD of ARED. The startup offers solar-powered kiosks for users to charge phones and access WiFi.
He earlier started up in the trucking solutions space. He advises founders to work on a sustainable business model that is not dependent heavily on grants and subsidies. A hybrid or modular business structure can work in order to extend into the impact space.
“Quite frankly, I never thought I would be an entrepreneur until I actually started the business,” recalls Patrick Buchana Nsenga, Cofounder, AC Group. Its offerings include the Tap&Go cashless card for commuter transport as well as smart fleet solutions.
Patrick also serves on the Private Sector Federation of the Rwandan ICT Chamber and Invest in Africa forum. He has won the Young Rwandan Achievers Award and the Innovation Prize of Africa, and helped initiate Tech Support Incike, a charity for survivors of the 1994 genocide.
His cross-functional team provides a “beautiful mesh” of skills. Patrick advises founders to recruit talent based on commitment and alignment with core values.
Many of the founders appreciate Kigali as a startup hub. Though nascent, its momentum and relationships are gathering steam. More social entrepreneurs are joining the ecosystem, and more can be done to provide forums to discuss problems and solutions.
One section of the book profiles five entrepreneurship programmes of the city’s universities, as well as a growing crop of entrepreneurship support programs. For example, The African Management Institute (AMI) offers programmes for business development support and youth leadership. It has adapted to the online mode during the pandemic.
The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, founded in South Africa in 2003 by physicist Neil Turok, is now headquartered in Kigali. It offers STEM innovation programmes for “sciencepreneurs,” and runs the Next Einstein Forum to connect government and business for funding innovation.
The University of Rwanda offers an Executive MBA in Impact Entrepreneurship. Founded in 2010, the Akilah Institute supports women leaders and entrepreneurs through an entrepreneurship diploma.
The Moringa School, founded in 2014, offers WeCode courses in software development and data science. Its graduates have found work in MobiCash, Awesomity Lab and Andela.
Advice for aspiring founders given by these programme heads includes the importance of curiosity, creativity, passion, and open-mindedness. As problem solvers, they should be willing to experiment in the workplace, and question the assumptions of others and even themselves.
Entrepreneurs should be collaborative, and aspire to contribute to the overall industry, economy and society. They should focus on ethics and sustainability as well.
The last section of the book profiles six investing firms, along with sample portfolios and advice for founders. For example, Access to Finance Rwanda (AFR) promotes financial inclusion and financial-sector development.
East African Investments (EAI) is an impact investor that provides $20–$100,000 for early-stage startups. Its portfolio includes shoe business Uzuri K&Y Designs and Kasha (ecommerce for women’s health).
Root Capital was founded in 1999 by Willy Foote, a journalist and social entrepreneur. It supports rural agricultural businesses with loans of up to $1.5 million, including coffee cooperatives.
Rwanda Green Fund (FONERWA) supports firms with goals of a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy. It has mobilised $200 million for more than 40 projects over the past seven years.
The Rwanda Innovation Fund (RIF), managed by Angaza Capital, invests in startups in fintech, healthtech, agritech and smart logistics.
Urumuri, a partnership between Inkomoko Entrepreneur Development and the Bank of Kigali, provides loans to SMEs. It has supported House of Tayo (suit shop with physical and online channels) and Ishyo Foods (jam from local fruits).
The investors offer a range of tips for founders. They should address a real need, and be OK with using technologies and business models that have worked in other markets as well (“copy with pride” rather than reinvent the wheel). Passion and integrity should be coupled with evidence of traction and impact.
The book ends with a glossary of terms and a directory of useful resources for startups, such as investors, meetups groups, and events. For example, forums and events include Africa International Club, Founders’ Friday Kigali, Green Drinks, Kigali Tech Happy Hour, Rwanda Fintech Forum, Startup Grind Kigali, and Twumve Twumve (“Hear us, we hear you”).
In sum, the book provides informative and actionable insights into Kigali’s startup ecosystem, as well as a useful framework for other cities to reflect on and improve their own startup ecosystems.
YourStory has also published the pocketbook ‘Proverbs and Quotes for Entrepreneurs: A World of Inspiration for Startups’ as a creative and motivational guide for innovators (downloadable as apps here: Apple, Android).