interviewBy Collins Mwai
Established about three years ago, KLab was Rwanda's first tech hub that brought together young people in ICT, providing them with an environment to experiment with their technical and entrepreneurial skills. The hub, a brainchild of Rwandans involved in the ICT sector and was facilitated by government, Private Sector Federation and Japan International Cooperation Agency, is one of the country's proofs toward building an effective ICT sector. Collins Mwai spoke to KLab general manager Jovani Ntabgoba for insights of operations and successes of the ICT sector. Excerpts;-
When the ICT hub was formed, what was its purpose and intention in line with building an able ICT sector in the country?
The purpose of KLab is to work as a co-working and incubator space for young IT entrepreneurs. It was put up to develop skills of upcoming IT entrepreneurs.
It is a trend that you can find all across the world. There is a need to have a central place where like-minded people meet. That was the idea behind KLab; to create a conducive environment for young ICT entrepreneurs where they can access different facilities and share ideas on how to put up and run IT businesses.
What was on your list of objectives?
The main objective was the creation of an ecosystem that is conducive to nurture an IT business and have at least 10 start ups coming up every year.
What is the story behind the KLab's inception?
The hub has six co-founders all involved in the ICT sector. They met and agreed that having a common working space where people can meet and working together would develop the sector. With the idea, the government, Rwanda Development Board and the Private Sector Federation agreed to sponsor the inception of the idea with help from JICA
It's slightly over two years since KLab was established, what achievements has the ICT hub made?
We have managed to build a community, which was the first target. We currently have a community of 364 members, who all have different ideas they are trying to develop into a business, some of them have began making money out of their ideas which are the start ups that we were aiming at.
We have some making a living out of their ideas while others have since begun working with big ICT corporations and we are working on more success stories in the future.
For you to provide the ecosystem that you want, you require human resource capacity and effective programmes, do you have such?
We call the ecosystem a mini-silicon valley. If you went into any such environment you find a number of events to develop ICT skills happening. We have such events and a pool of people to make it happen. We have professors from Carnegie Mellon University and tech experts in the country who come in to mentor the members.
Among the events are demo nights where members present what they have been working on. We have sessions where we bring venture capitalists to listen to the pitches of members to see if they can invest in what the members are working on. We also provide training sessions.
When members join the hub, do you have any exit strategy and evaluation standards?
There is an exit strategy. It is well defined in the KLab tenant cycle. When one comes in with an idea, we guide them and after a period of about two years, we expect that idea to have matured to a required exit level. Within two years, one has at least raised enough funds where they can put up their own office and run an enterprise of their own but of course in business it is not certain the two years can be a short or long period depending on how the business takes off.
During this time, we help members acquire financial support for their business ideas and pitches.
What are your short and long term plans as an institution?
The plans include to try to make a reality that ICT can be turned into a solution that any average Rwandan can use, and at the same time ensuring that members can make a living and also provide employment by working in the sector.
In the long-term, we want to have a Rwandan company get listed on an international stock exchange.
What is the status of ICT in the country?
Infrastructure-wise, we are more or less where the developed countries are, we are currently testing 4G, and that is what is being done in some of the western developed countries. In terms of skills, we have among the best computer research institute (Carnegie Mellon) located right here in the country.
Policy wise, there are adequate policies in the country to see the growth and development of the industry.
What we are now having is the development at different stages of each aspect especially the enterprises but progress has so far been made. The whole country has already been wired with fibre optic cable and there are lots of initiatives where ICT reaches out to various fields. There are numerous opportunities in the sector and there is the necessary foundation.
By your assessment, what are some of the opportunities that medium and small scale investors could look out for in the ICT sector currently?
There are opportunities going by the increasing number of people willing to invest in the sector. Some of those opportunities include Internet service providers reselling, there are opportunities in automating services as there has been calls to automate services. The industry is relatively new and the basics, infrastructure and policy are available.
It has been said severally that for the country to get ahead in terms of ICT, we need to be in a position to attract major world renowned ICT firms, are we in position to attract them?
We are attractive enough to big world renowned ICT firms because our policy framework to promote business establishment is as good if not better than that of most developed countries. Other than Rwanda being strategically located for firms willing to spread out to the region, we have proper and necessary infrastructure to be attractive.
What has been the main facilitator of the progress achieved?
The main facilitator has been the government which has streamlined the policy framework for the ICT industry and brought in Necessary infrastructure like Fibre Optic Cable and data centre. They have gone ahead to bring in a number one research institute in computer science.
The remaining part is up to the private sector because we have all it takes; the only remaining bit is for the private sector to make the most out of the opportunities.
There is room for partnership between the public and private sectors, currently there are already some that are doing well. The Rwandan government is open to work with various players in the sector.
In recent years, the Rwandan ICT sector has been trying work with other institutions, public and private for better service provision, has there been any impacts?
ICT can be viewed from two perspectives; it can be seen as an enabler where it facilitates other sectors operation which is where we are focusing more. ICT can also be viewed as a fully-fledged industry on its own where people are into manufacturing, software development that is geared towards technical issues.
There are lots of benefits of employing ICT in other sectors, usage of ICT in the economy leads to a significant increase in GDP growth.
There is room for ICT in several sectors; an aspect that we always encourage in every sector is that it should be business oriented. You do not just employ ICT for the sake of it, it should have an economic impact and value to validate its use.
With more than 60 per cent mobile penetration, the market is ready, especially if the solution built is mobile phone accessible.
Some of the opportunities are in the agricultural sector because a majority of Rwandans depend on agriculture as a source of livelihood and any service that would facilitate their business would come in handy. We have about 30 per cent of our GDP coming from agricultural sector and it is yet to be tapped. There are also opportunities in transport and education.
Rwanda is currently in the process of regional integration, do you think the ICT sector will benefit from this process?
There is a tendency in ICT not to be limited by borders. In the sector, we probably have already integrated. In a place like KLab, we are open to work with people from all over the region. We have people from all over the world and we collaborate with people from all over the world.
We will soon have a science and technology commission for East Africa, which will look at how research and development can be done for the whole region in regards to science and technology.
Is the sector in any way contributing to the second Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy goals?
ICT is cross-cutting in all those aspects, it mostly comes in to increase efficiency and boost performance in various sectors and also to cut the costs of doing transactions in other sectors, but what we are also looking at is innovations that will assist in economic progress and reduce poverty.
What would you say is holding back the ICT sector in terms of start ups?
The biggest challenges is time. Most of these projects have just began, with consistency we are going to see bigger projects come up. People are yet to be acquainted with ICT-related business as the field is relatively new. There is a bit of hesitance because of risk assessment. Our survey did not find financing as a major challenge.
Banks are right not to invest in ICT because the risk assessment is different and the ICT start ups are highly risky. The way out is venture capitalist community being the people to take on the high risks. We have not yet had a big community of venture capitalists and the solution will be to find a way by which we can motivate more people to come in.