This week, as investors and policy leaders land in Rwanda for the annual World Economic Forum on Africa, the spotlight will be on the hundreds of Rwandan entrepreneurs who are contributing to the East African nation’s rapid and sustained economic growth.
Across the globe, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are the lead drivers of job creation and economic development. In Rwanda, the statistics are on par. According to the Rwandan Ministry of Trade and Industry, 98% of businesses are considered SMEs, contributing 41% of all private sector jobs in the nation.
Rwanda’s government has created a supportive environment for these SMEs to thrive. Often cited are Rwanda’s policies which speed entrepreneurs through an online formal business registration at a record four hours. Protections for investors, practically non-existent corruption, infrastructure for online payments, access to energy, and an increasingly educated workforce are all hallmarks of a nation that is both smart and serious about economic development.
Yet, we know that small business growth is downright hard. Businesses fail. Entrepreneurs fail. Ideas fail. But, by overwhelming majority, the spirit of innovation and tenacity is practically baked into the Rwandan attitude towards business growth as a key to national transformation.
My company, African Entrepreneur Collective (AEC), works with dozens of young entrepreneurs in Rwanda who are taking big risks to see their ideas come to life. In Rwanda the business development community is largely split between investing in agriculture, the primary base of Rwanda’s economy and the largest driver of new jobs, and the ICT sector, which holds the promise for modernisation and lifestyle improvements for millions.
At AEC, we work with both. Here are some of the Rwandan entrepreneurs who inspire us:
Nearly ten years ago, Rwandan women traders in the local market threw away the cassava leaves they were not able to sell each day, as the plant spoils quickly. Pierre Damien experimented with methods of drying cassava leaves for improved storage, and his curiosity led to an innovative dried cassava leaf product that retained the nutritional value of the fresh leaves and was at least four times faster to cook.
Today Shekina employs over 100 permanent staff and works with more than 1,000 farmer suppliers – both groups are approximately 70% women – to produce a dried cassava product for domestic and export markets. Isombe is a staple food of East Africa, and the dried and instant cassava product not only brings higher value for the farmers and jobs for processors, but it saves thousands of hours of time for Rwandan women cooking for their families.
Pascal Murasira, co-founded Hollanda FairFoods and its signature brand Winnaz crisps in 2014 with initial capital investments from IFDC. Hollanda purchases and processes Rwandan-grown Irish potatoes to sell as potato chips. By using a contractual farming approach to engage with farmers and cooperatives, Hollanda now is a profitable Rwandan company, with a strong domestic and export market.
Hollanda’s presence in East African markets is growing, as sales for snack foods in Kenya in 2010 reached US$44.4m, growing at an average rate of 8% annually. In Rwanda, packaging is one of the more expensive elements for the company, as Rwandan law prohibits the use of plastic bags. So the special Winnaz package not only is full of awesome chips, but it’s environmentally sound as well.
In the ICT realm, we’re checking out the young and promising Academic Bridge, an ed-tech company connecting parents to teachers for the benefit of communication about student progress. From tracking school fees to exam marks, the team at Academic Bridge has assembled an inspiring package of features, recently recognised by Tigo’s Reach for Change programme.
Academic Bridge’s CTO, Christian Ikuzwe, has been previously awarded accolades by the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for his SanMob app. Other team members, including Miriam Muganga and Yves Iradukunda, are serial entrepreneurs bringing networks from Nigerian start-ups and Rwandan ecosystems to build an app that is sure to succeed.
And no conversation about Rwandan tech is complete without a nod to SafeMotos, the ”Uber” for motorcycle taxis in Kigali. With 5,000 users on their Android and iPhone apps, co-founders Peter Kariuki and Barrett Nash have created a taxi-hailing app that not only delivers convenience and mobile payment options, but also allows customers to select drivers based on ratings of driver quality. The SafeMotos team has been securing accolades across the continent – from a feature in the Economist last week to awards from Pivot East, the team has created serious traction with less than $200,000 investment.
We believe it’s a special combination of a positive enabling environment, practical hands-on support from partners like AEC, and a thriving entrepreneurial spirit that make Rwanda’s SME scene a trendsetter for the continent.
Sara Leedom is the co-founder of the African Entrepreneur Collective, a network of business incubators and accelerators with the mission of creating jobs through private sector development.