The Growing Tech Community in Rwanda

[slideshow]Greetings to all from East Africa.  In my recent trip, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet with some of the inspiring people who are working hard to ensure that Rwanda’s tech community is given the opportunity to thrive.  Here’s an overview of some of the fantastic organisations and people I’ve been connecting with.

Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) was established in 1997 and is the leading educational institution in Rwanda, training students in computer science.  MIT runs an annual 6 week course in App development and entrepreneurship (approximately 90 students), which students claim transformed their belief in their potential to initiative start-ups and practically apply their ICT skills.  The course culminated in an App contest and some of the most successful concepts were pitched at a conference in Switzerland.

Applications developed include an application helping people position themselves and identify useful services in Kigali, a job search app, an app that maps water availability in the Northern Province and feeds into the water authority and an application helping to connect families and friends separated during the genocide.  There is clearly enthusiasm among the students to develop technology-driven solutions to local issues.

I met with Nic Pottier, CEO and Founder of Nyaruka, a for-profit software company which has helped to build a maternity health system (data collection and analysis, community health worker support). They also built Technoserve’s transparency platform for the coffee sector and have successfully lobbied MTN to open up in order to enable local applications to host on their networks.

Nic is working closely with recent computer science graduates and young entrepreneurs and runs weekly events which provide training, mentorship and business advice.   They have currently brought together all major technology players in the private, not-for profit and government sectors (e.g. Jaiko, Youth ICT Association, The Private Sector Foundation for ICT, Rwanda Software Foundation) and have initiated a working group which is focusing on setting up an innovation hub in Rwanda, called K-Lab.  They have been offered a free space in Telecom House by the government, though the contract is still being finalised.  Its main aim is to strengthen the technology community and stimulate local entrepreneurship in the tech field.  They aim to use a social enterprise model.  I have put them in communication with innovation hub managers across Africa and they have already initiated discussions.  We hope to see Rwanda’s first hacker space in operation soon.

Clarisse Iribagiza is a hugely knowledgeable and passionate KIST graduate who participated in MIT training in software development and entrepreneurship.  She is widely recognised by government for her contribution towards strengthening the tech community in Rwanda.  She was a Pivot 25 finalist and has showcased her work in Geneva.  She runs HeHe Ltd, a private sector mobile application development company, established in August 2010 which has developed a variety of applications including an SMS feedback and content management system for Nike Foundation’s girl hub project, a mobile directory for local businesses and an application which supports people who have lost passports and other crucial identification documents in Rwanda.

She has recently (November 2011) set up an ICT Youth Entrepreneurs Network known as ihills (not for-profit), which aims to strengthen the youth tech community through networking, training, mentorship, access to finance and markets, which has weekly meetings and attracts international mentors.  They hope to empower young technologists to develop predominantly socially focused applications for the local context. Whilst this initiative is new, things are happening fast and the government has been hugely supportive to date.

Lucy Mbabazi is a Harvard graduate who has taken a lead in guiding Rwanda’s ICT strategy, working closely with Patrick Nyirishema-Head of ICT at Rwanda Development Board.  Her key contributions were shortening the length of government projects (from 5 to 1-2 years) and evaluating and altering the strategy at the end of projects, ensuring the policy was written entirely by Rwandans for the first time, developing specific indicators, outcomes and implementation plans, setting up continuous monitoring, making the strategy more concise and realistic and setting up a new governance structure.

She has also engaged government with the World Wide Web Foundation, who are trying to develop a three year mobile application training programme (approximately $1 million budget) in Rwanda.  They hope to set up an mLab (incubation lab) and provide support with content development and business support.

She has huge faith in the government and the country’s ICT leadership and praised their commitment to interacting with citizens through ICT.  She believes that local app development is currently limited but has huge potential to improve government dialogue.  One example is an application which has enabled citizens to send questions to government Ministers by SMS, which are channelled to Twitter without the need for citizens to access the internet.  Government has been hugely responsive to the needs of citizens.

Other locally developed applications she highlighted include an application which enables citizens to make appointments at hospitals and for other government services through their mobile phones (a huge time saver), business directories, an application enabling parents to monitor student’s school progress on mobile and an application which gives nutritional advice to those with chronic health conditions.

The technology for social change civil society sector is small in Rwanda, but there is a hugely enthusiastic community, which have excellent ideas about how to move forward and who are really keen to build their capacity, particularly around business development. I hope you enjoy the slideshow above, which shows some of the people who generously gave their time to meet with me as well as the potential space for Rwanda’s first tech innovation hub in Telecom House, K-Lab and the beautiful views from its balcony.