Patrick Buchana Nsenga is the CEO of the Kigali-based tech startup the AC Group limited. Operating in the city’s transportation sector, the company orchestrated the introduction of the ‘Tap&Go’ system in 2014: a digitized payment system that allows transport users to pay fares with pre-loaded wireless cards instead of cash, making for an all-round improvement of the user experience.
This development may seem insignificant, as the use of pre-paid transport cards is now the standard in many cities worldwide. However, the establishment of Nsenga’s ‘Tap&Go’ was revolutionary for Kigali and actors in its transport sector. Commuters report that daily transits are now more streamlined: they no longer need cash for all modes of transit, making budgeting easier and journeying a more pleasurable experience. The ‘Tap&Go’ system also provided a fix to the former issue of revenue losses incurred by the city’s bus companies. All payments are now digitally checked and stored, making payment evasion more difficult. The success of the company has been universally beneficial and welcomed by many – by 2018 the company reported an estimated 1.4 million registered users across the nation, and the format has since been exported to other cities on the continent including Douala, Cameroon, and Nairobi, Kenya.
Nsenga and his company serve as just one example of Kigali’s many emergent, independent, technology-oriented companies with strong visions of improving society. Its vibrant capital city is host to its own influential tech-hubs – such as KLab, Fablab and the Kigali Innovation centre – and has also led the way in Rwanda’s bid to become a ‘regional tech-hub’. Tech-hubs are spaces for the assembly, and cooperation, of technology enthusiasts, innovators, and entrepreneurs. This assembly increases the accessibility of important inputs that are required for startup companies such as knowledge, capital, labor, business partners, markets and much more. While usually referring to geographically proximate clusters of startups and businesses, tech-hubs can also adopt macro definitions where actual countries are the facilitators of such information flow – the ultimate goal of the Rwandan government.
The official establishment of a concerted, national development effort by Rwanda can be traced back to the ‘Vision 2020’ framework established in 2000. With the horrific 1994 genocide still fresh in the memory of the population, the government hatched this plan to rebuild into a ‘middle income country’ by 2020. Early on, it acknowledged the need for a ‘knowledge-based economy’ that was widely literate in science and ICT in order to drive development. It cultivated these even further during the 2010s with the rapid emergence of tech hubs across the continent. Taking heavy influence from Singapore’s development trajectory, the government’s prudent support of tech-centred entrepreneurship has been a key contributor to the country’s rising economic profile since 2000.
Like the AC Group Limited, the Mara Corporation provides yet another example of a young, technology-based company whose combination of entrepreneurial innovation and social welfarism has improved the lives of many. In 2019, the company began the sale of its trademark Mara smartphones, priced between $130 and $200 USD. The company aimed to provide cheaper alternatives to higher end options that dominated the market, such as Apple and Samsung, thus increasing the population’s connectivity in the process. The phone has increased the capability of tens of thousands of individuals across the country to access a smartphone at a more affordable price.
Although many revere the president for the progress that he has led, questions still persist over some practices of Kagame’s government as well as how far reaching the nation’s growth will go. Critics label his regime a repressive one, where limits have been placed on ‘freedoms of expression, assembly, and opposition’. Kagame is currently in his third term in office after a controversial election in 2017 where he won 99% of the vote. The president has since stated he does not intend to run again in the next presidential elections, due to be held in 2024.
It seems, overall, that the reminder of Rwanda’s scarring past has been a uniting force in the strive for a stronger nation. Recent popular initiatives, like those mentioned above, aim to provide solutions to societal problems that previously restricted the average Rwandan’s well-being. Listing all of the nation’s pioneering innovation centres and their various initiatives would have made this a strenuous read. Aside from the dozens more which already exist such as the ARED company, new startups are constantly emerging, each with their own agendas. This burst of entrepreneurial activity is not driven by a desire to maximize individual wealth or power. Instead, these innovators are driven by a desire to improve the nation’s social conditions for both their compatriots and themselves.
Edited by Zachary Beresin
Joel Sawmadal is in his second year at McGill University, where he studies Economics and Political Science. This is his first year as a Catalyst staff writer and his interests include economic development and politics in developing countries.