The Rough Road to Rwandaful Innovation

The Rough Road to Rwandaful Innovation


Apps have become our lives, we use them for everything, it was a giant leap in innovation to move from robotics to applications. I was impressed to see over 50 Rwandan Apps on Google Play Store, and there was a huge variety of very well thought out apps. Takeaway order applications like Hellofood, now Jumia foods, are adapted to our market. +250Taxi is another growing app that is beating Uber to the punch in Rwanda, and so many others. Then there is Sakwe Sakwe, a surprise gem, it gives you riddles to answer against a clock. These riddles were used to help us think laterally and really use our brain, that is something employers often complain about, inability to think laterally. Dereva helps you learn how to drive with online tests, also helps you hire a driver instantly if you are drunk to avoid a conviction during a late night drink session. We have the constitution as an app, you can instantly defend your right by quoting it in second, soon we’ll have the penal code app. We have so many types from banking, to music, to Bible, to Dating apps all in the local language and interface. It is really an underground revolution it has the capability to create employment and link services to clients instantly. In Rwanda, we’ve had a huge investment in ICT infrastructure and we’re awaiting the explosion of the tech boom. There a certain obstacles to this.


Toxic environment


Rwanda is not yet a real enabling environment, think of a business environment as an ecosystem; you have plants and animals, predator and prey, water is like capital, growth is the balanced expansion of the ecosystem. Like an ecosystem, when one aspect is out of balance, it leads to the demise of the whole ecosystem. Too many predators and the prey die out, then the predators, picture the circle of life in Lion King. In Rwanda we have done everything there is to speed up the process of opening a business, but when you walk out of RDB you face a dangerous ecosystem that is stacked against you succeeding.


  • Innovators face lack of capital to start
  • Rent in offices is expensive, transport, food, and other basics are also expensive.
  • Internet access is relatively expensive despite huge left over capacity due to expansion.
  • Lack of incubators – we have a few good spots like Kigali Hub, Innovation Village and a few others but there is not enough nurturing of business. Where are the breeding grounds, where little businesses can hide away from predators? An incubator provides capital in exchange for shares in your firm, they should allow you 2-3 years to grow and give you help with other aspects that give you an unfair advantage. Good marketing, accounting, sales, legal, auditing, technical skills all help a company grow. An incubator will take care of all those other aspects so the innovator can focus 100% on their idea.
  • Lack of complementary skills – this is the age of the open code, no one person has the answer, innovation is collaborative and we have too many Lone Rangers. Understanding that it is your skills not your idea that is valuable, anyone can have an idea but few can execute it. We need all these lone rangers to work on mega-apps instead of spreading too thin.
  • Not valuing intellectual property as an asset. Lacking the means to enforce copyright infringement means we cannot fully monetize intellectual property because the internet is ungovernable.



Banking and venture capital


In the late 90’s, there was a conversation that went something like this, and it happened 20 times over in several banking institutions.

“I’m sorry, you want me to invest in a number, a code that lets you search for stuff on the internet? I don’t even think this internet craze will last.”

“It’s a Googol sir, over a million numbers in a perfect sequence, an algorithm that will change the internet forever.”

“Google is a stupid name, why not QuickSearch? Sounds silly to me, go somewhere else.”


Several banks turned down Facebook, Google, Apple, but they also invested in duds. Knowing a real winner from the duds is hard, 90% will fail, only 3% succeed but 7% get bought out. In Rwanda, the odds are much higher than in Silicon Valley where they have capital, knowhow and ideas flowing freely. Banks would rather invest in fixed assets; buildings, stock, tangible assets, an idea is so hard to invest in. However, these companies are driven by people, so you are investing in people. We need government to incentivize investment in innovation with tax breaks or lower rates of borrowing. We need the judiciary to prosecute Intellectual Property (IP) cases, our singers are never paid for their songs on the radio, same on TV. If these laws are enforced better, then we can see banks investing in local artists knowing they have revenue.


Private capital is also hard to deal with, it can come unregulated and with high rates, the old Banque Lambert – the smiling loan shark. Even with formal contracts it is hard to enforce a deal, the investor can change terms at a drop of a hat. The ratio of capital to borrowers favours the investor, there are 50 other prime projects all slated to make money, so you are not special. The investor can often overrule a technical expert just to show them who is boss. Engineers are overruled on structural matters and it always comes to a bad end. People with money feel they were born with nothing, but somehow managed to accumulate wealth to get this far. They made it, and this means that they can make it in any business, they feel their skills are transferable to any sector. Failure to listen to experts means they pay down the line, people hire the best then ignore everything they say.


Japan syndrome – when a nation develops technologically and economically but stays the same socially and culturally, it will hit a road block where it stops to innovate. When a Japanese worker bows down and cannot even look his middle-management boss in the eye, then how can he give and honest professional opinion? How can she or he criticize and idea to make it better? Rwanda has the same problem of  deference to authority, a natural conservatism that is a natural barrier to innovation.


Maslow never lies



When you look at Rwanda innovation in general, few innovators are looking at the lower end of the economic scale. Our needs are basic, we cannot compare to the West who are on the verge of Level 5 Self-actualization. Africans are still on the level 1 and 2 of Maslow, we need basics, like food, shelter, water, health, renewable energy, security, and such. We love facebook, which gives us love and belonging, but this is a diversion, we need the basics. In order to make innovation matter to all, it must serve all. Water – apps can use satellite technology to identify underground reserves of water which locals can tap into. Energy, we must be trying to create energy solutions that will be sustainable and affordable. Africans want to jump to the top of the scale and have a mobile phone or laptop made in Rwanda, but stop!!!


90% of Rwandans are subsistence farmers, involved in backbreaking work, why not invent a hoe, a spade that reduces the burden. Instead, we jump to a mobile phone, if you invented a hydraulic spade that reduced energy use by 30% you will have increased the GDP of Rwanda. People would pay $50 for one and you could sell up to 5m while making more impact than a mobile phone. Innovation must fit our needs, we should never adapt to technology, it should adapt to us. Rwandans are conservative and reluctant to adopt new technology, until they see an immediate advantage.


Importance of rebellion


Innovation is rebellious, it is to go against perceived wisdom, to go against interests, to invent eco-friendly energy is to go against charcoal sellers, petrol station owners, and oil companies. Imagine Jenner, the man who invented immunization, coming up with the idea that infecting a child will protect it. It sounds mad, no sane parent would have allowed it, and so he practiced on his own children. They turned out fine, it took years to be accepted, some doubt it to this day, but it took an act of rebellion to take a bold step. Every inventor went against the received wisdom, and the first obstacle is cynicism, doubters, haters, and dream thieves. Society wants you to stay in this little box, the walls of Norms, the glare of public opinion, dogmas, social constructs, gender roles, class stratification, all limit human excellence. Conservative societies cannot innovate, they can force social change or stasis, the forces of the interests always win over public sentiment in patriarchies. In ancient Rwanda, the Twa pygmies were the best craftsmen and innovators, living outside mainstream society meant thinking outside the box came naturally.



Rebellion, Capital and Knowhow

The perfect recipe for innovation as identified by this group is to have Capital, Knowhow and Rebellion in equal measure. Why rebellion? It is the spark that sets of innovation, not rebellion in the literal sense of anarchy, but not wanting to follow the accepted way. To always question. It is in question that we find answers, but when we see a child in school asking too many questions, our instinct is to silence the child. That child should be encouraged, instead the teacher might be scared to say “I don’t know.” There are some examples below to show why rebellion is important, call it imagination, new thinking..

Black Landlord at MilkBoy

Black Landlord at MilkBoy Philly on 2013-08-15.

Capital alone – innovators pray for capital, as if it is the lifeblood of a business, true, it cannot function without capital but ideas are the lifeblood. When one has too much capital, one becomes lazy, there is no point going out to hustle when money comes to you. You can merely collect rent, you become a rent-seeker. You merely calculate how much your lifestyle costs and you accept that exact sum. Being broke makes you improvise, improvisation is instant innovation, you find more innovation in poorer areas than in richer areas, the rich can buy a solution instantly. Look at countries like Saudi Arabia that can import millions of people to work their economy while citizens get $30,000 free per year.


Knowhow alone – nations like India have the biggest pool of technical engineers but lack the capital to develop their own technology, they also lack the rebellion to create new ideas, so they subcontract. So Indian coders wrote this program I am writing on and Bill Gates got the money. Many young innovators tire of the broke life, tired of working out of mum’s garage, so you seek a job to provide the basics. This ends up killing the creative fire because they give you just enough, not a penny more. They give you just enough to kill your creativity but not enough to solve your problems.


Rebellion alone – that is the African malaise, too rebellious to sit down and solve our problems. Always trying new things but never seeing them through because we don’t have the capital and the knowhow to solve the problem. We know the solutions to our problems, they are as simple as the causes. Everybody wants Africa to change but none of us want to change. Rebellion leads to subsistence living, we mistrust our neighbours too much to form a cooperative, buy farm equipment, diversify and intensify crops, agro-process and preserve to get maximum profit, and repeat until rich.


Capital + Knowhow = efficiency economy. When a tech innovator submits a proposal for a loan at a bank, they are competing with a guy with a simple plan. “Go to Dubai, buy stuff worth $30,000, pay $20,000 tax and freight, sell for $80,000, repeat next month. Banks will opt for the trader with a short turn around and quick ROI, than on the guy who might be the Rwandan Zuckerburg or not.


Capital + Rebellion = Bling Bling. If your dreams came true and you have a great idea plus money, you will blow it. Look at every Rapper, faded superstar, MTV Cribs type of person. They had dreams of wealth but no means to manage it, they spend on shiny ostentatious crap they don’t need, to impress people they don’t like but we have that need to show off.


Rebellion + Knowhow = Playground. It is good to have ideas and the knowhow to implement them, but without capital to bring them to fruition then it is just a playground of ideas. Capital plays a crucial role in regulating the rebellion so that it is not out of control, capital has to see sustainability in the ideas with revenue streams. Capital pays for the knowhow to bring it off the paper to a tangible product. Capital must respect the ideas, and trust the technical knowhow and link the other two. Steve Jobs was the epitome of rebellion, his ideas were left field but he created a new center ground. He wasn’t a programmer, Steve Wosniacki was the technical nerd, but Jobs could provide vision and satisfy the investors explaining complex matters in simple terms.


C.RA.C.K – Connecting Rebellion Adaptation Capital Knowhow


The perfect ecosystem is one which has an equal balance of the three elements. I remember a time in Kigali when there were only 5 good web designers who could make you a good site that wasn’t crashing or looked nasty. The shortage of good designers meant going to Nairobi or Kampala, or dealing with months delay in Kigali, the local designers were overpaid and always late as competition for them was tight. Now you have an oversupply of designers, there are even apps that let a novice design their own site. Capital was flushing around in Kigali for the Tech sector some years ago, everyone was getting funding as government prioritized it. The extra capital did not produce extra innovation because Knowhow and Ideas (Rebellion) were missing, guys bought flashy cars, became innovators just by printing a business card. INNOVATOR!! We had seminars, oh God, we had seminars. “How to leverage technological innovation to transform Rwanda into a Knowledge economy?” Step 1. Get out of Serena and into the real world, Biryogo, just 200 meters away.


It really isn’t that hard, but Rwanda lacks the crucial element, lateral thinking. Our education system teaches people to cram, not to understand. We don’t teach problem solving as a skill, we breed people to obey and not to think, then we are surprised when people expect government to solve their simple problems. In the old days we taught by example, we taught to giving a task and letting the child figure it out and we correct them later. My grandfather once left me with a bow, he said “Use your voice to string it.” I tried everything till my cousin told me to put it on my sternum and press down to bend the wood then let go.” I tried again till I got it. There are more solutions than there are problems. Group learning is important, children teach other children and understand, if you understand, you will remember. Leaving kids in groups with a problem to solve (Problem-based learning) is the model used in Silicon valley to innovate by collaboration. Some people are introverts and never take part in large groups, but a group of 5 people is enough to get them to open up and have a voice.


Military – science – industrial complex


There is a virtual or vicious circle, depending on how you see it, between – the scientific community, military and industry. This alliance is not new, it goes back to the Stone Age, ever since we used wooden spears, and then a man designed a spear made of sharp flint blade. This blade killed the wooden spikers and gave the stone-agers an advantage, soon everyone had stone tools of different quality. One day, a person put rocks around a fire to hem it in, these rocks melted and left behind a hot liquid, this liquid dried and made copper, when mixed with zinc it becomes Bronze. Bronze-Age guys kill all the stone-age guys, then a person discovers another metal stronger than bronze, iron, the iron age. We call it ‘cutting edge technology’ because we were looking for a sharper blade to kill our enemy with, this escalated to nuclear bombs, drones, surveillance technology. Technology will never make us equal, the whole point is to make us unequal, to give an unfair advantage, we are all born equal but as soon as we are born we become unequal. This is due to the levels of technology we are exposed to.


There has always been a link between technological progress and military advancement. The military has a blank cheque when it comes to security. A Rwandan tech innovator should have James Kabarebe and other Generals in mind when they think of products. If you can provide a strategic advantage to your country, then the Government is obliged to invest. The Americans developed Silicon Valley firstly for military purposes, later, venture capital came in but the military is still king as they invest $500bn for defence. Imagine if we took the best innovators to Gisenyi, gave them a liberal environment and told them to just create. Find better and cheaper ways to kill the FDLR or other groups attacking us, find a cheaper and more effective way to house our 50,000 military and police, find a cheap energy source for the military. There is no single solution but several smaller solutions, this is because situations and people are different.


Need is paramount, we must solve our own problems in our own context. Back to basics, our problems are basic so we need to focus on that. Energy, Water, Shelter, Food, Security, Connecting, all these should be the main focus of our innovation. Our wants are different from needs, we can’t tell the difference, needs are things you can’t do without.


So, go forth and innovate



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