The Diaspora Can Help Fuel Rwanda’s Technology And Digital Ambitions

By Sean Obedih


As Rwanda day 2013 comes to London for the first time, let me take this opportunity to talk about the role that the Rwandan business community in the diaspora can  playing by embracing  the creation of Rwanda startup culture and make a difference in creating much needed jobs at the same time benefiting from the growth of the ICT sector.

Rwanda Day is a periodical event that is held in different countries around the world and brings together Rwandans and friends of Rwanda to reaffirm their core national value, celebrate the country’s progress and discuss ways they can best  be part of Rwanda’s socio-economic transformation.

This event is generally aimed at giving a rare opportunity to members of the Rwandan Diaspora to interact directly with the Head of State and discuss matters that affect them, and get updates on the country’s progress. It is also aimed at encouraging members of the Rwandan Diaspora to partake in the country’s development process.

The proliferation of Information Technology (IT) as a mighty tool to enhance business efficiency is creating opportunities for Rwanda’s young geniuses as the brave ones passionately set up small businesses that specialise in the development of simple applications to exploit the increasing demand for software, especially among Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs).

Two years ago Marc Andreessen coined the phrase  Software is Eating the World and  as a Venture Capitalist  whose job it is to spot future trends in the economy and customer behaviour, he should know. The same applies to Rwanda in a very big way and this presents a fantastic investment opportunity at the basement level.

Rwanda, a small, landlocked and natural-resource poor country, has hedged its bets on becoming a knowledge-based economy. ICT development is a pillar of Vision 2020 – President Kagame’s plan to turn Rwanda into a developed country by 2020. In 2000, the government launched the National ICT Plan (NICI I), to create an enabling environment for ICT initiatives to be implemented over four five-year cycles. By 2010, fibre optic cables spanned the countryside, even in places where tarmac didn’t.

Now, with sufficient infrastructure in place, NICI-3 (the third instalment) aims to push forward the ‘participatory phase’ of Rwanda’s ICT development.

If you are a Rwandan living in Rwanda or in Diaspora, it is time for you to seize business opportunities offered by Rwanda.

Privatization and altering government’s role in the capital markets created  a more favourable climate for start-up capital formation; Internet Café, Call Centres, Computer Consulting, Hardware Reselling are the usual suspects but the signs are there that Rwanda is also learning from its neighbours especially Kenya.

A typical example of this can be seen through Klab an open space for ICT entrepreneurs to collaborate and innovate in Rwanda, which opened in July 2012.

kLab is Kigali’s open community innovation centre for entrepreneurs, innovators and mentors in the tech community. Their mission is to promote, facilitate and support the development of ground-breaking ICT solutions by nurturing a vivid community of entrepreneurs and mentors in Rwanda.

The idea of an ‘innovation hub’ is not new to Africa. The continent is undergoing a tech-hub boom; there are now more than 50 tech hubs, labs, incubators and accelerators in Africa, covering more than 20 countries.

The stunning space, along with high-speed internet was donated by the Rwandan Development Board (RDB). Both the RDB and Rwanda’s ICT Chamber play an active role in managing the growth of the space. Other costs, such as renovating and furnishing inside of the space, were funded by JICA, the Japanese development agency. When it comes to fostering technological innovation in Rwanda, simply the existence of a place like kLab, government funded or not, is a big step in the right direction.  No one can deny the tremendous economic, social, and infrastructure development the country has experienced , kLab is barely in its infancy, and while the government may be able to build cool new spaces overnight, a community cannot be built the same way but this is where the Diaspora can make a big difference in building local capacities to make good use of the infrastructure; there’s ample local talent, just to name a few:  Clement Uwajeneza, and Clarisse Iribagiza are trailblazers, and there are surely more.

It will take a great deal of cultivation and leadership to transform the kLab into a meaningful entity for Rwanda’s technology sector the same way that Google Campus became the epicentre of start-up activities in East London but diasporan and other experts in various fields can become mentors to some of the companies operating from Klab and build the relationship from there, all you need is a Skype connection and a weekly chat session with a local entrepreneur before investing any cash.  Practically speaking the best way to strengthen the Rwandan innovation ecosystem is to improve access to financing. A great example of this model in action can be seen in Israel where the government through its various departments is the first line of angel investment in start-ups and innovations. So in order to fill this gap, the Government can make outside investors an offer they can’t refuse by creating tax incentive scheme similar to SEIS (Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme) created by the UK government designed to boost economic growth in the UK by promoting new enterprise and entrepreneurship – of course, all this should be open and attractive to Rwandans in the diaspora.

Rwanda also lacks an adequate pool of angel investors, which delays innovations and start-ups from taking off or contributes to their eventual failure as owners struggle to raise capital; businesses that attract angel investors are always seen as good candidates for further soft funding from venture capitalists because they often benefit from their management skills. This is a gap Rwandan diasporans in particular could  fill by forming a good pool of angel investors  not only because they possess the capital and skills but also because they understand the market better than any foreigner will do.

There’s a need for these potential investors to be made aware of investment opportunities and events like Rwanda Day are a good first step.

Sean is an entrepreneur and founder of Founders’ Hive, a peer-to-peer startup business incubator based in east London. Prior to starting Founders’ Hive, Sean created an award-winning multi-ethnic brand of skin toned first aid products now sold under the name of Urban Armour. He is a graduate of the University of Buckingham.

Follow him on Twitter:  @Sobedih.

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