Editor’s Note: This is part four in an ongoing series on Rwanda’s rise. Follow the series here.
They say that home is where the heart is. For many of us, the idea of ‘home’ conjures feelings of comfort and convenience — the good life. But what if home is where heartache is?
After residing in Uganda for most of her young life, Clarisse Iribagiza returned to her home in Rwanda kicking and screaming. “When my family moved back, I had no choice,” she reflected. Like many young Rwandans, Clarisse believed that she would only achieve her dreams away from home.
As a small, landlocked country with limited natural resources and a tragic history, Rwanda is often regarded as a place of little opportunity, especially for its youth. Rwanda currently registers a 42 percent youth unemployment rate, and 67 percent of the population is under the age of 25. For years, Rwanda’s youth – alongside neighbors throughout sub-Saharan Africa — have scrambled for opportunities elsewhere, many thirsting to further their education in the U.S. or Europe.
This ongoing exodus is popularly referred to as ‘brain drain.’ In 2010, the total diaspora of Africans living outside of Africa totaled 30.6 million, according to the World Bank. A hefty percentage of Africa’s diaspora is highly educated, as demonstrated by UNESCO reports. In the U.S. alone, 50 percent of the African diaspora possesses at least a bachelor’s degree.
Yet a shift is underway across young Africa. According to a 2012 survey by Jacana Partners, a pan-African private equity firm, 70 percent of African students studying at top 10 American and European business schools plan to work in Africa following graduation. No place does the yearning for home seem greater than in Rwanda, thanks to a generation of innovators like Clarisse.
Determined to make the best of the return to her homeland, Clarisse enrolled at KIST, Rwanda’s first technology-focused institution of higher education in its capital city. There, her eyes were opened to the potential for technology, and mobile applications in particular, to transform her home country of Rwanda and greater Africa. In 2010, during her third year, Clarisse entered a six-month mobile training program and competition hosted by MIT. She and a group of classmates built a mobile application that she describes as a mash-up of Yelp and Google Maps.
Failing to win the prize money awarded to the first and second place contestants, Clarisse’s team emerged from the competition with mentors committed to helping them understand the market opportunity and potential for social innovation. Initially setting out to build their own mobile apps in-house, Clarisse soon realized that her business would generate far greater impact by serving as an incubator for mobile app developers. Named after the Kinyarwanda word for “where”, HeHe Labs guides young developers to navigate the future opportunity of mobile in Africa.
In just a few years, HeHe Labs has successfully incubated mobile apps designed to improve operational efficiency for sectors including education, health, agriculture and transportation. And their work is not confined to their country’s borders. Safeboda, one of HeHe’s most successful apps so far, is designed to encourage road safety in Uganda. It’s Uber-like technology vets and geolocates taxi drivers who demonstrate safe driving practices. HeHe’s most recent breakthrough is a digital media store for African content called Nuntu, the first and only platform designed to integrate with local payment systems.
Perhaps HeHe’s greatest potential impact has been delivered through it’s Code Clubs, which help train high school age students to build meaningful mobile applications. “Most importantly, we focus on creating an environment that ignites a passion for learning through research, experimentation and problem-solving,” Clarisse explains.
To affect more powerful change at greater scale, HeHe understands the significance of overcoming Rwanda’s dire education situation. While the challenges are many, access to technology in the classroom is rapidly improving. In 2013, only 14% of secondary schools were connected to the internet and the computer to students ratio was 1:44. But according to Iribagiza, this is quickly changing. Not only has access to education improved dramatically (Rwanda has the highest primary school enrollment rate in Africa with 96.5% children in school), but quality is on the rise as well.
With contributions from innovators like HeHe Labs, there is good reason to expect this rise.
Just ask students from the recently completed class of 2014:
“Being part of HeHe’s Code Club changed my way of thinking. I joined the program doubting my ability to achieve any goal or dream. HeHe made me believe in myself because I met students who had similar dreams as mine and I realized that I was not alone in my pursuit,” says Captone Habiyaremye.
And their motivations are encouraging:
“As I hope to positively impact the world around me, I can think of no better way than through pursuing a career in computer engineering. Whether it involves creating new forms of entertainment for avid web surfers, enabling communication for people across the globe, or building lifesaving technology, computing to me provides solutions to the world’s problems,” explains Yannick Fleury Kabayiza
“My dream is to one day give back to my country of Rwanda. I want to be part of those who develop Rwanda’s technology sector because I believe technology eases people’s lives.”
If you’re wondering where this commitment to address social ills stems from, look no further than HeHe Labs’ founder. As I pointed out earlier in this series, Clarisse embodies a generation of role models who are redefining and reshaping Rwanda’s role in the world.
When I asked Clarisse what drives her to create positive impact in her home country of Rwanda, this is what she said: “I don’t want to be just a bleep on the radar. I want to have an impact and it’s not the same if we can’t do it at home. We’re wired to make an impact here in Rwanda.”
For a deeper look at HeHe Labs, take a look at this video:
Image credits: HeHe Labs