Tech Hub for Rwanda Startups
To make positive change in the world, we don’t just need tons of money, popularity or political influence, we need the right tools.

By getting the right people together in one place, specifically one that fosters intellectual development and creativity, we can make great things happen.

This is the belief of kLab, a tech hub in Rwanda where young people can bring their startup ideas and receive free Wi-Fi, workspace and mentorship from professors, business owners, and community leaders.

kLab – which stands for “knowledge lab” – has been operating for over a year and was officially launched in October 2013. The center is funded by the Rwanda private Sector Federation, the Rwanda Development Board and the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

“The knowledge lab is an innovation center where fresh and young graduates come to work on their projects, especially in the tech industry,” said Jovani Ntabgoba, kLab’s general manager, at the launch.

kLab currently offers the services of 21 different mentors to its over 80 tenants. The startups at the center range from online shopping websites to improved medical technology. The mentors offer these young people the ability to truly flesh out their ideas and turn them into much more.

“The culture is collaboration, but it’s not just collaboration; it’s positioning oneself at an age where you receive the best mentorship that you cannot find anywhere else in Rwanda,” Ntabgoba said. “At kLab we have all of the knowledge that is required for a tenant to develop their business.”

The power of this collaboration has led to the beginning of many bright futures for startups that focus on the vision of the country of Rwanda: to turn the nation into a knowledge-based economy. However, young Rwandans are challenged daily by a lack of skills due to the fact that the educational curriculum is not yet “innovation-oriented.”

One of the more recent kLab successes is GIRA ICT – a startup that combats a large roadblock to widespread internet usage in Africa: hardware prices. By partnering with big name manufacturers like Apple, Samsung, HP and Lenovo, GIRA ICT allows consumers to pay for their devices in monthly installments in order to increase hardware ownership across the country.

“We started as a group of five entrepreneurs, so we came into kLab and they gave us a free space to work in. We could enjoy internet… they provided us with mentors,” said project supervisor Alphonse Ruhigira.

GIRA ICT has also been collaborating with the government to supplement the One Laptop per Child program. Founded by Nadia Uwamahoro, this effort provides teachers with laptops that they can pay off over a span of four years. So far, this has helped about 100 teachers to attain laptops and the number is steadily increasing.

“It’s a brilliant innovation and she is doing brilliant business,” says Jean Philbert Nsengimana, Rwandan Minister for Youth and ICT of Uwamahoro. “She’s taken computers to places where they were seeing and touching them for the first time by lowering the affordability challenge.”

Through efforts such as GIRA ICT, kLab is pushing Rwanda towards its goal of becoming a middle-income country by the year 2020.

“I want you to understand the uniqueness of this kLab compared to many other iHubs in the region. The uniqueness of this one is that you are in this building and you are not alone in this building,” said Michael Bezy, associate director of Carnegie Mellon University in Rwanda, who works with kLab in order to provide mentorship to its tenants.

“You look at that and you say ‘I have entrepreneurs here, I have a world-class university, I have IT businesses and I have IT infrastructure.’ That looks to me like a mini Silicon Valley,” said Bezy.

– Samantha Davis

Sources: Wired, kLab, Wired
Photo: Wired

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, so it is necessary to compare the country then and now.  Today, the Rwandan population is estimated at 12,012,589 people, which is the 74th biggest population in the world.  But just 20 years ago, before the genocide, there were estimated to be anywhere from 500,000-1,000,000 more people alive (just under 20% of the population at the time).  This number has such a large range because there are still investigations going on to find how many perished that year.

The whole genocide was originally sparked by an ongoing ethnic competition for power between the Hutus and Tutsis.  In 1959, the Hutus (the majority ethnic group) overthrew the Tutsi king in power, started the slaughter of thousands of Tutsis and forced them to take refuge in surrounding countries.  Then in 1990, the offspring of those exiles formed a rebellion called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and initiated a civil war. This war goaded the tensions between these two ethnicities, and in 1994 led to genocide by the Rwandan government against civilians (three-quarters of which were Tutsi).  The genocide ended when the RPF defeated the national army and almost 2,000,000 Hutu people fled the country (most of which have returned today) fearing a possible retribution of the Tutsis.

Since the end of the genocide, things have been drastically improving in Rwanda, particularly with regards to governance.  In 2003, they had their first post-genocide legislative and presidential elections. Then in 2009, Rwanda joined the Commonwealth after it was able to restore diplomatic relations between Kinshasa and Kigali, with the help of the Congolese Army.  Last year they were able to assume a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for the first time for this 2013-2014 term.

Rwanda has also progressed significantly in its services to the poor.  Rwanda is the very first country in sub-Saharan Africa to introduce dual measles-rubella vaccines to its people.  These types of immunizations are incredibly important because they are a cost-effective and successful way to save children’s lives, which is obviously a great accomplishment, but it also reduces overpopulation since child mortality rate and child birthrate are directly proportional.

Rwanda is fully embracing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), being one of the few African countries that are actually on track to achieve seven of the eight. Recently, the poverty rate in Rwanda has dropped almost 12 percent, from 56.7 percent in 2006 to 44.9 percent in 2011.  This decrease comes from a number of reasons: the Rwandan government encouraging all of its citizens to take part in community development, the slowing of population growth, improved national infrastructure and agricultural production.

The percentage of people with safe drinking water in 2011 was 74.2 percent and is only improving.  Also, maternal mortality has dropped drastically, being at 1071 deaths per year in 2000 and 487 in 2010. Today, over 90 percent of children in Rwanda are vaccinated and living healthy lives. UNICEF has been a driving force behind all of this and has helped Rwanda over the last 20 years to go from genocide to development.

– Kenneth W. Kliesner

Sources: CIA World Factbook, UNICEF, UNDP
Photo: Paul Kagame

In a country where just 20 years ago, genocide claimed nearly one million lives, the Rwandan government has revamped HIV treatment for the poor by reforming the standards of successful care.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, there are now over 7.5 million people receiving antiretroviral therapy, 150 times as many as a decade ago. Medications have become easier to manage and overall, more effective, forcing some patients to take no more than one pill each day. Also, HIV testing has become much more widely available and the virus is being detected at an earlier stage before the circumstances are too dire.

In Rwanda, many HIV patients are taking their medications as directed, medication which suppresses the virus in their bodies to the point where it is essentially non-detectable. Success here is achieved when the HIV positive individual can earn a living, support their family and care for their community no differently than uninfected individuals. Furthermore, patients who would have previously been hospitalized with severe complications of HIV are now receiving regular preventive care.

The steps forward being taken in this small country are undeniable. Compared with 54 percent of medical patients worldwide, 91 percent of Rwandan patients who require HIV medications have access to life-saving treatment. Even more encouraging, 98 percent of women undergo HIV testing during their prenatal visits. In a country with only one doctor for every 17,000 people, nurses and community health workers have been trained to provide HIV services that were before, only available from physicians. Aggressive media campaigns by the government and other international organizations remind and encourage the public to “Know Your Status” while targeted outreach programs concurrently focus on the high-risk groups.

Rwanda is one of the first sub-Saharan countries to nearly eradicate the transmission of HIV from mothers to their newborns. Due to this, the number of new HIV cases has been cut in half during the last decade, and perhaps soon, it will fulfill the dream of accomplishing an “AIDS free generation.”

– Sonia Aviv

Sources: The Atlantic, The World Bank, BWH Global Health
Photo: AIDS Health

The newest collection at the Brooklyn Museum offers unapologetic effects of violence around the world in a new exhibit titled “WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath.” The collection features works by 225 photographers from all walks of life including military members, commercial portraitists, journalists, amateurs and Pulitzer Prize winners.

Nearly 400 pieces are present in a variety of mediums such as prints, books, magazines, albums and photography equipment. The exhibit allows visitors to explore the evolving relationship between war and photography over the last 166 years.

Several iconic pieces are present including Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph of solders holding up the American flag on the battlefield in Iwo Jima and Robert Clarks’s images of the destruction of the World Trade Center.

Unknown works like “Valentine with her daughters Amelie and Inez” offer new perspectives on continuing issues of violence. In the photo, Valentine stands in front of a house with two young girls, her arms wrapped around one.

The image depicts the struggles of Rwandan women during the early nineties, when instances of violence and rape swept the region. The two girls with Valentine are her daughters, one conceived through marriage, the other by rape.

Other images in the collection show the endurance of humanity in the face of endless violence such as Mark A. Grimshaw’s First Cut, which illustrates an American soldier cultivating a small patch of grass in the middle of the harsh Iraqi landscape.

Some works, on the other hand, are simply heartbreaking as in the case of W. Eugene Smith’s “Dying Infant Found by American Soldiers in Saipan,” June, 1944 depicting a soldier holding the baby in his arms as another soldier watches on.

Rather than a strictly historical account of past wars, the organizers of the exhibition aim to not only reflect the effects of violence in the world but also, explore the connection between violence and photography. The exhibit’s curator, Anne Tucker explains that despite the sheer volume of images and variety of locations, certain patterns are evident in the type of photographs produced from such occurrences.

Those interested in learning more about the collection can visit the Brooklyn Museum website or visit the exhibit in person until February 2.

– Jasmine D. Smith

Sources: The New York Times, Brooklyn Museum

Since its devastating 1994 genocide, Rwanda has been in a state of recovery. Nearly 20 years ago, Hutus killed approximately 800,000 Tutsis over the course of 100 days. In addition to numerous social, political and economic changes, the mass murders shifted the country’s gender ratio drastically, leaving women to outnumber men 70 to 30 percent. As a result, Rwandan women have taken center stage in the country’s recovery – by weaving baskets.

The practice of basket weaving has been a part of Rwandan culture for centuries. Women weaved baskets to help carry and contain food, to decorate ceremonies and to transport goods. Following the genocide, however, basket weaving took on a new meaning.

In the past two decades, basket weaving has become a way for Rwandan women to come together, pushing past the “Hutu-Tutsi” barrier that had once divided them. Working next to women whose husbands had been killed and women whose husbands had committed the killings, women all over Rwanda have chosen peace over hatred.

But healing isn’t the only positive effect of basket weaving. Rwandan women have also gained economic independence and improved their local communities by selling their baskets in Western markets.

For example, Gahaya Links started off as a small company with only 27 basket weavers. Today, it is a business with more than 4,500 artisans that is continuing to help impoverished areas of Rwanda. The company has done so well that their products are being sold by stores across the U.S., including big department stores like Macy’s.

While Gahaya Links is the foremost basket weaving company, a number of other basket weaving businesses have been started. The profits of these companies go toward providing Rwandan families with food and medicine.

It’s been 19 years since the genocide and the country is still recovering. But sometimes recovery can begin with something as small as a handcrafted basket.

Chante Owens

Sources: Beauty of Rwanda, CBS, CNN
Photo: World Designs

Africa Mobile Technology Essential Development
The number of wireless devices in the U.S. outnumbers the population. With a population of 315 million in 2011, there were approximately 328 million mobile devices in the U.S. Americans enjoy mobile devices, as do an increasing number of the African population. Paul Kagame, current president of Rwanda, captured the growth of mobile devices in Africa by stating, “In 10 short years, what was once an object of luxury and privilege, the mobile phone, has become a basic necessity in Africa.”

Let’s look at some examples:

  • Nigeria: A decade ago, landlines dominated in Nigeria, with about 100,000 phone lines. Today, Nigeria has close to 100 million mobile phone lines and the landline company is no longer in operation.
  • Kenya: In the last decade, mobile phone subscribers have increased 500-fold. Additionally, in 2009, mobile phone sales increased by more than 200 percent when the 16 percent general sales tax was removed. The sales continue to rise.
  • Rwanda: In 2010, mobile phone users grew by 50 percent. Doubled in one year!
  • South Africa: 72 percent of those between the ages of 15 and 24 have cell phones.
  • Africa as a whole: 650 million Africans, particularly the youth, use mobile phones for both social and functional purposes. This by far surpasses the number in the U.S. and Europe.

Although mobile phones across Africa generally consist of low-end Nokia phones used for the Short Messaging Service (SMS), smartphones with Internet capability are on the rise throughout the continent. In some African countries, mobile phones are more common than clean water, bank accounts and electricity, according to the World Bank and African Development Bank.

Why has there been an explosion in mobile phones? The main cause is the increasing reliance on mobile phones by youth. The youth, ages 15 to 24, depend on their mobile device not only for communication, but also for listening to the radio, transferring money, shopping, using social media and more. With some Africans only making $2 a day, many will occasionally skip their meals in order to pay the $5 and $8 monthly cell phone expenses.

Mobile devices are also used as a way of combating many social issues in Africa:

  • Activism: Mobile devices have offered communication, transparency, organization, openness, and empowerment to the electoral process.
  • Education: As mobile devices are more common and more affordable than PC’s, they are used as tools to deliver teaching content. As more than half of the parents in Africa are illiterate, there is hope that these teaching tools will have a positive impact on the education status of African children. In South Africa, MoMath, a mathematical teaching tool, has been launched.
  • Disaster management: With constant wars and genocide occurring throughout Africa, displaced persons are commonplace. Through mobile devices, displaced persons are able to reconnect with their families.
  • Agriculture: Agriculture is one of the largest employers throughout Africa. Through mobile phones, farmers are now able to make better decisions, resulting in more profit. Farmers use mobile phones to research weather information, market prices, and micro-insurance schemes.
  • Health: According to the World Health Organization, nearly 30 percent of drugs supplied in developing countries are fake. Through SMS, buyers can send the code found within a scratch card on the medicine packaging to find out if the drug is fake or not. This is a life saving resource, as in Nigeria, nearly 100 babies died due to ingesting a solvent usually found in antifreeze through their teething medication.

By 2016, there will be an estimated billion mobile phones on the continent of Africa. This has a huge impact for potential investors. In Kenya alone, the use of mobile devices has had a big economic impact. The mobile device industry contributed about $3.6 billion to the country’s GDP and has provided numerous employment opportunities.

– Caressa Kruth

Sources: CNN, The African Report, Washington Post
Photo: Evidence4Action

Microcredit, microfinance, micro-insurance… There is a microfinance revolution occurring around the world, and it is changing the perceptions of what can be done for those living in poverty.

Empowerment is an important focus of aid and development work. A family that, instead of being given rice and feed for a season, is educated and provided with tools to grow rice and feed themselves, can become self-sustaining. However, providing this kind of empowerment assistance can be difficult. How can organizations provide loans or credit to people who do not have bank accounts? How can they insure farmers when the value of their crops does not reach the minimum premiums? How can they make health insurance available to families living in poverty?

There is a market available for all of these services, but it is taking a revolutionary approach to provide it. Insurance has typically been the domain of the middle and upper classes. Insurance providers have always targeted those with significant investments to protect, as that is where the money lies. But for small-scale farmers, with fewer assets, the dependence on the success of their investments is greater than that of the wealthy. It is these people at the bottom of the economic scale who need insurance the most, as they are the ones without a safety net.

Recognizing this, the international foundation Syngenta has begun offering an insurance program for small farmers. The project originated in Kenya, and offers insurance for farms as small as half an acre, charging them a rate of $5.25 a season. The project is run remotely, with local supply stores acting as purchasing points for insurance and weather stations used to calculate damages due to climate effects, resulting in minimal overhead costs. Operating in Kenya and Rwanda, the scheme has already sold more than 64,000 insurance policies, largely to farmers who have never before had the option of buying insurance.

Similar programs are being developed around the world, with some focusing on micro-credit while others provide insurance at a fraction of the cost of traditional insurers. Furthermore, as the field develops, larger insurance companies are also embracing the model. In 2005, micro-insurance was offered by only 15% of the largest insurance companies. Today, two thirds of those companies are offering with micro-insurance. Some estimates place the potential market of micro-insurance to be between 2 and 3 billion potential policies.

Small-scale farmers with insurance are better able to provide for their families, even in the event of crop failure. This minimizes the potential for famine and also decreases the need for foreign assistance to provide for people in the event of crop failure.

– David M Wilson 

Sources: The New York Times, Syngenta
Photo: Dowser

Rwandan Refugee Kids Waiting for Food on March 28th
Recently, the United Nations pledged $400 million to Rwanda to be paid out over the next five years. The announcement was happy news to a country that still has fresh emotional wounds from the 1990’s genocide from which it has yet to fully recover. This is the greatest nod from the international community that the country has received since earlier this year when it was awarded a seat on the UN Security Council.

Rwanda depends on external aid for 40% of the budget, but for years the nation’s GDP has been at 7%, slowing to 5.9% only in the first quarter of the year. Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s ultimate goal is to rely less on aid, and more on investment. Author Stephen Kinzer says that Kagame’s objective was to “have a country that really works, everybody speaks English, the Internet is super fast, the airport is totally free of corruption… then lure to Rwanda all the companies and economic interests that are working in this entire region.”

Many have spoken out against the nation’s president for human rights violations, including silencing political opposition and deaths attributed to Rwandan-backed rebels in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. However, many are also lauding him for the way he is running his country economically. Vowing to make Rwanda a middle-income country by 2020, Kagame has boosted the nation’s coffee, tea, and tourism industries dramatically.

Harvard University Professor Michael Porter is convinced that Rwanda is playing to its strengths by focusing on these areas. Natural resources are scarce there, but volcanic soils in high altitude are rich in nutrients and allow for abundant coffee and tea production, and the country’s rich biodiversity has opened up a great market for eco-tourism (for instance, Rwanda is one of the few safe places in the world to view mountain gorillas in their natural habitat). According to a statement issued by the Rwandan government on Thursday, approximately $124 million from the UN will be put towards economic and “governance” projects, bolstering these industries even more.

Much of that will also go toward increasing Rwanda’s energy capacity. Kagame wants his people to be ready to meet whatever demand for labor that may come with such a change. In an interview with Justin Fox, he said, “We keep sending our people to institutions of higher learning in the sciences, engineering, and management. It’s the focus because we want our people to understand how the new world works.”

But most Rwandans remain poor farmers living in subsistent conditions, and the lofty goals of 2020 cannot come soon enough for them. Luckily, the other $276 million from the UN will be spent solely on development in order to strengthen the health, education, and nutrition of the people. With memories still marred by a violent history, this country’s problems won’t disappear overnight, but progress is a principal priority of the people and the current administration alike. Speaking about Rwandan’s newfound awareness of their interdependence in the interview with Fox, Kagame says, “Yes, we need each other. We are more similar than different. It helps the society to move forward.”

– Samantha Mauney 

Sources: Bloomberg, The Independent, NPR

On the afternoon of July 22nd, the British commonwealth grew excited in anticipation for the arrival of the Royal baby, but what if baby George, the Prince of Cambridge, never arrived? What if complications had severed his chances of survival? Despite the joy the Royal baby received on his safe arrival, what would this baby and his mother would have done if they lived in a Third World country?

In the developing world, childbirth complications contribute to high maternal and infant mortality rates. The highest infant mortality rate comes from Afghanistan with more than 1 in every 10 newborns dying during childbirth. Around the world, nearly 3 million newborn infants die, with an additional 2.6 million born stillborn every year.

Yet, we must remember that such high figure does not take into account the mother in these events. An estimated 800 women die each day from pregnancy related causes. As it stands, 99% of these maternal deaths come from developing countries.

The greatest causes of maternal mortality include severe bleeding, infections, contaminated delivery rooms, high blood pressure, high risk abortions, and harmful diseases. Fortunately, these deaths are preventable. Unfortunately, there is much to be done in order to reduce these numbers.

Along with health issues, other challenges include “delays in seeking care, inability to act on medical advice, and failure of the health system to provide adequate or timely care” according to the WHO’s 2005 World Health Report.

However, there is a bright side; maternal deaths have been nearly halved since 1990. This improvement is due, in large part to an increase in social acceptance of midwives, adequate training of attendants, and proper implementation of health expert strategies. With a 2.4% annual rate of decline in maternal mortality, many experts agree that it proves the success of strategies and more resources must be committed.

Health experts point to success stories, such as in Rwanda. Despite genocide and destroyed infrastructure, maternal mortality has been reduced by more than half since 1990. Even more, women in Rwanda have doubled their access to skilled attendants, up to 52%. Many attribute this success to the government’s commitment to women’s health with proper planning.

But Rwanda is not the only country cutting their maternal mortality rate. Progress is being made around the world. However, more must be done in order to continue this progress. Although current strategies are proving successful, the developing and developed countries must continue committing themselves to the development of international health sectors.

– Michael Carney

Sources: AlertNet Climate, CIA World Factbook, UNFPA, WHO
Photo: US Weekly

Tens of thousands of Rwandans await news on their status as refugee. The June 30th deadline for the discontinuation of refugee status has passed and the future seems uncertain for those who have yet to return to their home country. Fear still lingers with many Rwandans in the aftermath of the 1994 civil war and genocide that shook the country.

UNHCR has now recommended that countries housing Rwandan refugees invoke the “ceased circumstances” clause of the 1951 Refugee Convention. This clause ensures the return of refugees to their home countries when they are no longer persecuted. Because Rwanda has existed peacefully since the end of the 1994 genocide, they seem an ideal candidate for refugee return. Stability has returned and the justice system has worked hard to punish those responsible for genocide crimes and to reintegrate and reestablish healthy communities.

Refugees, however, have their own perceptions of their safety within Rwanda’s borders. Many refugees still fear persecution from the government and believe while situations have improved, there is still reason for hesitation. Many Rwandan civilians are still actively seeking asylum despite the reported safety of the country, thus questioning why UNHCR would invoke the ensured return clause. Many Rwandans are undoubtedly battling the  physical and psychological injuries sustained during Rwanda’s brutal genocide.

To date, only four African countries have followed the UNHCR’s recommendation to invoke cessation including Malawi, the Republic of Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe. This proclamation by UNHCR has been subject to widespread criticism by many who claim that it holds Rwandans hostage to their fear, pushing them home when they still do not feel safe. Some Rwandans fear that if they return, the country will be less stable, safe and free from persecution than UNHCR would like them to believe.

The Rwandan government has issued statements claiming they are prepared to receive the refugees back home. They claim to have developed a plan to successfully repatriate and reintegrate citizens. Government officials insist that the conditions of 1994, which forced Rwandans to flee, no longer exist. The country has undergone a vast reconstruction, which has included improvements to transit centers, education and health facilities. They have worked hard to help reintegrate citizens into society. Now the task at hand is to make Rwandan refugees feel safe in their homes once again.

– Caitlin Zusy
Sources: IRIN, New Times