First of all, can you pitch us your company in just a few sentences?
ARED is a technology for social good company. We have developed a smart kiosk and wifi platform to facilitate access to connectivity and digital services included government services in rural, semi urban and urban areas in Africa.
Can you tell us more about yourself, your personal background, your experience and how you went to this journey?
I was born in Kenya but Grew up in Burundi until I graduated high school in 1996. My parents were Rwandan refugees living in Burundi, and when the war started in Burundi in the 90’s, after graduation in 1996 my parents decided to send my sister and I to the USA, in Atlanta to live with my aunt and continue our studies. I got admitted at Georgia state University in January 1997 to study computer science. But I was not an academic, I did graduate university in 2003, but my passion was entrepreneurship. I started several businesses from 1998 from sales man of water filtration system, selling cell phones when they came out, selling organic jus and they all failed. But in 2006, I started a logistic company called Umg Logistics LLC and that became my first successful company. But in 2008, the financial crash happened, and made me decide that it was time to move back on the african continent. So, in 2009, I spent 6 month researching what field I should get into, and energy sector was the field that interest me the most. I use to go to Burundi and Rwanda on vacation, and what was amazing to see is the growth of cell phones usage, everyone had a cell phone but charging was a problem, and that is how I came up with this solar kiosk platform. It took 3.5 years to build the first prototype, and in November 2012, I sold my company, sold all my belongings, bough a one-way ticket back home and left the US. Today I am also an author, I recently release my first book called “My African Dream”, my new focus now is to inspire and educate the youth of Africa to focus on the opportunities on the continent instead of trying to leave. The continent has changed dramatically, and I believe by changing the narrative of Africa, we can inspire the next generation to carry on the baton.
Can you tell us more about Rwanda ? Why this market?
I first visited Rwanda in 1996 on vacation after my high school graduation. Rwanda is very similar in size to Burundi, beautiful weather. The second time I came to Rwanda was in 2001 then in 2009 and I was amazed by the economic changes that was happening, Rwanda had in 2009 a one stop shop place for businesses to register and get all the documents needed to start a business. I believe Rwanda is the best place to pilot new tech, it is a small market, low corruption, easy to setup a business and most of all now, they have build the largest conference center in East Africa that attract people from all over the world and it is the best place to network. But we currently expanding, we are in Uganda and will be in West Africa this year.
What are the main issues you have been facing with ARED in Rwanda?
The issues are many just like any entrepreneurs. But I will list three. The challenge I see the most if high taxes that is hurting the startup ecosystem, also lack of funding for R&D and investment funds. Finally, there is a lack of inclusive economy when it comes to collaboration and innovative mindset among large corporations (banks, telecoms.. ). Most big company do not have a department for innovation, they do not work with startups, small companies tend to stay small, and large corporation stay large.
Who are your main competitors around? And outside of the country, who are your inspiration?
We do not have competitors per say in Rwanda, we are the first and only smart mobile smart solar kiosk in the Africa market, however if you break down our technology, our wifi technology there is a company called Brck that has the same tech, we also provide digital services from an app and there is a lot of existing solutions that do that. My biggest inspiration is to revolutionize the way we provide access to connectivity and services for low income people. Everyone focus on middle and upper class, not very few companies see opportunities in rural areas and semi urban areas. My inspiration is that we can crack the code of solving a problem and building a sustainable business at the same time. Doing good in business is the new currency.
Is it hard to find investors there?
It is hard to find investors anywhere, all of our investment came from Europe of the USA, yet we developing a solution for the African continent. The challenge is local investors are not interested in startup technology companies since it is still early stage and risky, most investment goes to infrastructure and big projects. And foreign investors still find Africa too risky, the fundamental problem that we startup have is there is no path to an exit for most African startup, so investors feel they will never get their investment back. Going public is not an option since the market is not well developed, and merger and acquisition is nonexistent. And we all know, most tech companies take a long time to monetize, therefore investors shy away. And until we strengthen the exit strategy ecosystem the challenge will not go away.
What do you think is lacking to Rwanda to develop it more? What are the main barriers to develop a startup there?
Mindset is key, if we can change people mindset that operate in big companies so they can work more with SME’s, acquire innovative companies instead of trying to develop all the solutions themselves and most of them fail to implement it, support the startups on their expansion journey, lower taxes like labor taxes, number of taxes to be paid, then the ecosystem will be ready to attract even more people to come in and play in the field.
What is your perspective for the next years on Rwanda and more regionally on Africa?
To be honest, this sound like a question for an economist, all I can say for ARED our focus now is expansion, learning the market, finding key partners across the continent so we can plan an exit in within 3 years. But regional and continental integration is key, we have to be able to operate as business owners across Africa without too many challenges. Today, I am optimistic about the future, most leaders are talking about integration, more and more conferences across the continent are happening to support an inclusive economy on the continental level. But patience is key for us entrepreneurs, the changes are very slow therefore, we have to strength the private sector so we do not just wait for the public sectors to act.
As you know, we are always on the look of great startups, new products and amazing entrepreneurs, could you name a few locally or regionally in Rwanda?
Yvette ishimwe from iriba water group, Patrick Nsenga from Ac group, eddie sembatya from findingxy.com in Uganda, and Brian Bosire from UjuziKilimo from Kenya.