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EX PATRIA

How to build a successful software company in Rwanda

Reuters/Thomas Mukoya
SMS is king.
This article is more than 2 years old.

We’ve talked to a lot of people in the past few weeks since TextIt has launched and virtually every conversation starts with the same question “What are you doing in Rwanda?” I remember getting the exact same question when we first started Nyaruka, so maybe it is time for an update.

Three years ago my business partner, Eric Newcomer, and I were still in Seattle. Our little game studio seemed to be winding down. We’d done well in the early days of smartphone apps, but after building a few dozen apps, we were in the mood for something new. By random chance a friend of mine mentioned she was going to Rwanda for a project and that they could use some technical help, and having always wanted to visit Africa I jumped at the chance to tag along.

What I found in Rwanda surprised me. Far from the war torn canvas often pictured, it was beautiful and peaceful and in the midst of reinventing itself. Rwanda is a tiny country, completely landlocked by countries with poor infrastructure, so it is in a tough spot when it comes to exports. The biggest industries are tourism, tea and coffee and all of those were unlikely to continue to have significant growth. There just isn’t enough space. So Rwanda has a dream of building an information based economy instead, the idea to export services and software instead of physical goods.

On my first visit, the Vision 2020 plan as it is known was about halfway through, the government having just completed laying fiber optic across the country, and beefing up other critical infrastructure. The next decade was to focus on building the people side of the equation, improving education and the skills available. As I soon found out that was no small task, there just weren’t many experienced developers in Rwanda, many of the professors teaching had never coded themselves and the software community was still tiny.

I spent those first two weeks in Rwanda learning what I could about the state of things, visiting universities and talking to local businesses and government officials. From those conversations an idea sprouted—that maybe my skills as a developer weren’t completely useless to the developing world, that maybe just maybe we could start a company in Rwanda and see what we could give back.

So a few months later, in May 2010, Eric and I started Nyaruka with only a vague idea about what we would do, just betting that we would figure it out one way or another. It took a bit of time but Kigali is a small community, so after a few months we started getting some consulting gigs and from there our reputation grew enough for us to have a steady supply of work.

Most of that work has involved SMS in one way or another. We built systems to conduct live polls during radio shows in Uganda and Kenya, others to track the coffee harvest as it occurred and any number of health related projects, including birth registries and building prenatal reminder systems. Of course not every project has been a success, we’ve had a few end before they ever left the nest (sometimes the NGO world’s funding and priorities can be a bit fickle like that).

We never ran a consultancy before, so we made some big mistakes early on. Not insisting on maintenance contracts was the biggest one there. You need to establish early on with your client that your time has value and just because you built them a system doesn’t mean they get free maintenance and support forever more. But those were rookie mistakes having to do with our inexperience with consulting, nothing to do with Rwanda.

One of the best parts of working on so many projects is that we’ve had the opportunity to figure out what product we wanted to build ourselves. Through our consulting we found that the best uses of SMS were actually really simple, natural interactions, but nobody was making it easy to build those kinds of systems. TextIt was born out of that experience and in the end we found that we built a product in Rwanda who’s addressable market isn’t just NGOs working in Africa, but organizations large and small all over the world.

This surprises some; they point to the rise of WhatsApp and iOS messaging and say SMS is dead, and if we were talking about interactions between peers then I would tend to agree. But there is a huge and growing market in allowing organizations to better communicate with individuals, not with one way spam, but with conversations, conversations that provide information, measure opinion or provide self service. SMS is still the king here, everybody in the world with a phone number can be addressed by it, whether they are carrying the latest $700 iPhone or a $10 Nokia. TextIt makes those kind of interactions easy and natural, regardless of whether the end user is in the field in Africa or at the mall in San Francisco.

Of course wanting to write software that “did good” was only one of the reasons we undertook this adventure, perhaps even a corollary one. A big goal of ours was to help build capacity in software development here, to hire and train Rwandan engineers and grow the software community. We’ve done okay on that front as well. Though we had a few false starts, we now have two awesome engineers, Eugene and Norbert. The state of education when it comes to software still leaves a lot to be desired, but the talent is here, so with some investment in training they are both solid contributors and helping make TextIt better every single day.

Our other big success story is helping co-found the kLab, what you would call a co-working or hacker space, but what is more commonly called an “innovation space” here. Regardless of slogan, the concept is the same, that by bringing people together in the same space, working on similar problems, magic happens. Here in Rwanda spaces like the kLab are doubly important, because they help establish a little beachfront of software culture. We paid for the foosball table out of pocket because we wanted to bring out that little bit of culture, that software is more jeans and t-shirt than suit and tie, that it is a culture of doers and hacks and just making things work.

As to living in Kigali, well, that part is pretty awesome. Kigali is a beautiful city in an even more beautiful country. It is safe, clean and livable, the weather literally perfect day in and day out. And unlike some of the other regional capitals, corruption is virtually unheard of and most business processes, while sometimes slow, are predictable and by the book. The internet was pretty rough when we first got here but the real bandwidth has doubled every year and now rarely gets in the way.
The city has grown up a lot over the years, we have an awesome movie theater, a bowling alley and even pretty great burritos. Part of that is more expats starting to settle here, part of it is just the city coming into its own, but it is growing by leaps and bounds. The biggest complaint you’ll usually hear about Kigali is that it can be a bit boring at times, there isn’t necessarily much to do, not much live music, not many interesting events. (Well, that and a lack of cheese options, you really start missing cheddar after a while; trust me, gouda can only take you so far.)

So in short our little adventure has worked out okay, despite seeming a bit insane when we first started. I’d encourage anybody on the fence about moving abroad to just do it, to take the risk and get off the couch. Make a concerted effort to build up a little parachute of money, then just jump and see what happens, either way it will make for a great story.

One cautionary footnote, if you decide to do it: do it with intention, commit to it. Having been here for a while now, I’ve seen many who make the move for a few months, maybe a year, but treat it as volunteer tourism. There is a place for that, but the bigger need is for those who come and want to build something of lasting value, a business or organization. Try to commit to a few years at least, try to work locally, try to get involved, because through that struggle you’ll leave a lasting mark instead of only enriching yourself.

If you are ever in Rwanda, stop by the kLab and stay hi, we always love talking to visitors and answering questions.

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