Perched on the top floor of an office complex that overlooks the Rwandan capital of Kigali, kLab, one of the country’s first tech incubators, has all the trappings of a Silicon Valley start-up. On any given day dozens of young people can be found here—brainstorming at the coffee bar, or crowded around the foosball table, or, most often, hovering over laptops. Their projects range from software that improves the milk-collection process in rural areas to a local version of Trip Advisor, and are evidence of a future many Rwandans hope to see.
Founded in 2012 as a partnership between the government, the country’s private sector, and a smattering of international donors, kLab is emblematic of Rwanda’s efforts to instill an entrepreneurial spirit in its young people. This push toward entrepreneurship began as an unconventional response to the global financial crisis and has become a staple of the country’s recovery from the 1994 genocide that left as many as a million dead. As Jean Philbert Nsengimana, the Minister of Youth and ICT (Information and Communication Technology), said, “the focus [is] on equipping the young people with the right tools in terms of not only technology, but also an entrepreneurship mindset.”
In practice, this means running training programs and workshops, as well as funding competitions—like the annual Ms. Geek contest—that encourage young people to create their own opportunities. And in many ways, the plan is working. From bicycle-taxi drivers to computer programmers, youth across Rwanda identify as entrepreneurs, and the country boasts a slew of funds, programs, and institutions that are aimed at helping young Rwandans translate their entrepreneurial ambitions into tangible jobs. Whether there are enough to keep a rapidly growing and urbanizing population employed is still an open question. But the initiative does seem to be sowing a sort of reinvigorated patriotism among a generation both deeply aware of the country’s painful history and eager to help it evolve beyond its scars.
“Years ago, when you were asked your nationality, people would say, ‘I am Congolese,’ or ‘I’m coming from Kenya,’” explained Jack Yakubu Nkinzingabo, a young photographer whose father was killed during the genocide, just a week after Jack’s birth. “Now everyone is so proud to be Rwandan.”
Although Rwanda’s focus on its youth has helped it make great strides, its entrepreneurial push has also raised some questions. There is no standard definition of the term entrepreneur, for example; meanwhile, a majority of Rwandans still lack access to electricity, making computers and the internet far-fetched improvements to daily life. And even in the best-case scenario, little thought seems to have been given to the potential political implications of youth empowerment in an arguably autocratic state. As Marc Sommers, the author of Stuck: Rwandan Youth and the Struggle for Adulthood, writes of Rwanda’s political traditions, “[Institutions] are focused on what they think youth should be doing, not on what youth priorities are.”
What’s more, Rwanda’s highly orchestrated approach to development has come into stark relief as longtime President Paul Kagame pursues a third term in office. His controversial bid required a constitutional amendment to term limits, which could potentially keep him in power until 2034. Whatever this means for democracy in Rwanda, it suggests that the government’s top-down take on entrepreneurship will remain a priority.
So the landscape of innovation in Kigali continues to grow. Recent additions include a tech incubator called think, the Inema Arts Center, and the nebulously defined Innovation Village, among other projects—all of which provide what the Kagame government might call “opportunity.” Such opportunities, though, seem narrow when considering the relatively select segment of society these institutions serve. Nonetheless, they are signs that, despite the kinks, Rwanda’s entrepreneurial push is far from slowing down.
— Tik Root
Support for this project was provided by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.