Driving growth: How Rwanda’s kLab is powering entrepreneurial change

To stroll through the (neat and tidy) streets of Kigali is to stroll through one of the fastest-developing cities in Africa. The Rwandan capital is bustling, increasingly thriving, and rapidly evolving into a modern, sustainable city, one that is casting off the horrors of yesteryear and instead becoming known for its growing technology sector, its strong infrastructure, and much else besides.

Nestling in downtown Kigali – the city’s residential areas are spread across its surrounding hills – you can find the headquarters of kLab (the “k” stands for “knowledge”). It is an innovation space which helps young entrepreneurs, graduates and students turn an idea into a real business. Mutangana Aphrodice, its general manager, is justifiably proud of its track record so far. “We started in 2012 and now have more than 1,400 members, and over 80 companies have been created here,” he explains. “We are open 24/7 and offer free space, free mentorship and free internet to our members. They come with their ideas and we help turn them into reality.”

Getting down to business

Rwanda has come a long way since the 1994 genocide. Today, the country is motoring towards its Vision 2020 goals, which include becoming a middle-income country by the year 2020, underpinned by a strong private sector and knowledge-based economy. Aphrodice says kLab is specifically contributing towards these objectives in many different ways.

“We are here to promote and support ICT solutions by developing a strong community of entrepreneurs and mentors,” he explains. “We want to capture the good ideas of our young people and help make them real – which is often the hard part. And so we host a range of events, workshops and networking sessions to help them make this tricky transition.”

They certainly do – most days of the week are given over to a specific event or programme activity. “Firstly, we have ‘Demo Night’, which is where people come with an idea and we teach them how to pitch it,” says Aphrodice. “This is really important because the next time they do this, they will go out to sell their products or their services. We give them feedback about their ideas, and we also help them connect with people in the same field. This takes place every Wednesday.”

The following evening is “kLab Talks”, which is when Aphrodice and his team invite an external speaker to come in and lead a discussion on a specific subject, such as cybersecurity. Another event – which takes place quarterly – is based on the television programme “Dragons’ Den”, but kLab christened their version “Face the Gorillas”. “Once people have a product, that is when they need help the most,” points out Aphrodice. “‘Face The Gorillas’ is where local and international investors meet up with our entrepreneurs who have started their own businesses and are in need of financial assistance. The event gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to present their business ideas in front of investors, in the hope that the investors will be interested and be able to fund those businesses.”

And on the last Saturday of every month, between 7am and 11am, kLab deploys its technology expertise to contribute to “Umuganda”, a countrywide programme of community service for those aged between 18 and 65. This is a four hours when businesses and shops close down and the people – ranging from President Kagame through to the humble citizen – pour onto the streets to take part in community service, working on public paths or helping the community in some other way (which helps explain the tidy state of the city). At kLab, their contribution is digital in nature.

“We started by mapping Kigali and translating the FireFox browser into Kinyarwanda,” explains Aphrodice. “And in 2015, we started a new programme which teaches children how to code. These are kids between 7 and 12 years old, and we have taught thousands about coding. We do this by having mobile teaching labs. So we drive to rural areas and invite kids into our bus and teach them from there. What we are trying to do is teach kids in a fun way, rather than in a standard classroom.”

Nuts and bolts

kLab is staffed by a range of businessmen and women, as well as volunteers from academia and the ICT industry. A public-private partnership, it is supported by the government, the ICT Chamber of the Private Sector Federation in Rwanda, as well as JICA – the Japanese International Cooperation Agency. “This power of this combination is among the reasons why KLab is one of the most stable hubs in Africa,” observes Aphrodice. “We work with the government, private sector and the international development community, and the 80 businesses created out of KLab now have a combined value of over $3 million.”

This is certainly an impressive track record, but Aphrodice is keen to stress that the entrepreneurial environment in Rwanda is highly conducive to those looking to start and grow a business. “Of course, there is always scope for improvement, but the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Rwanda is one of the strongest in Africa,” he says. “For example, to open a company in Rwanda only takes six hours – it is done online and is free of charge. And if I have to renew my driving licence, I don’t need to go somewhere to process it – I can do it on my phone.”

He goes on to say that the country’s security situation, as well as other cultural factors, have also played their part in pushing Rwanda forward. “Rwanda is among the safest countries in Africa,” he says.

“It is very secure – you can work at 2 a.m. without any problems. Plus, Rwanda doesn’t tolerate corruption at all. If you are caught bribing someone, you are seriously punished – so this is a very strong deterrent. And it is also worth remembering that in many other African countries they have more than one language – the Democratic Republic of Congo has over 200 and South Sudan has more than 70, for example – but in Rwanda we only have one. This makes doing business much easier. Plus, other African countries have more restrictive laws for women. But Rwanda is the first country in the world that has more women in Parliament than men – 64% of parliamentarians are female.”

Thinking big

There is little doubt that kLab has already made quite the impact – World Bank President Jim Kim paid a visit recently to give his seal of approval – and there is no sign of slowing down any time soon.

“We want to make sure kLab keeps growing,” concludes Aphrodice. “We have branches in Kigali as well as the southern and western provinces, but our target is to ensure that kLab is in each and every district of Rwanda – this means we want at least 30 kLabs. We also want to build a big knowledge centre – a silicon valley of Rwanda where big companies can be based.”

Big plans for sure, but judging by their track record so far, few – if any – would bet against them. Watch this space.

 

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