KIGALI, RWANDA – Her eyes shine brightly from behind her black, thick-framed glasses. A white blouse and gray trousers flatter her petite frame as she sits with her shoulders squared, her legs crossed at her knees. Her voice is youthful yet authoritative.
Clarisse Iribagiza, 24, is the 2012 winner of Project Inspire Africa, a Ugandan-produced reality TV show. The series showcased 24 young entrepreneurs from across four East African countries in an elimination-style competition, with the winner taking home $50,000 to use as start-up funding for his or her business idea.
Iribagiza is the CEO and co-founder of HeHe – which means “where” in Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda – a mobile applications company based in Kigali, the country’s capital. She started the company when she was still a third-year student at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology.
Iribagiza says that mobile-based solutions will solve the current information gap in Rwandan society, so her company, HeHe, launched a short message service solution during August 2012 in partnership with one of Rwanda’s telecommunication companies. The application will serve as a catalogue similar to a directory of names and locations of companies, government offices, services and events across Rwanda.
“If I want to find out where I can get my medical insurance [from the government], someone can text in and get information on things like that,” she says.
Iribagiza says that people in both urban and rural Rwanda will benefit from the service.
Iribagiza is also a mentor at the Knowledge Collaboration Centre, better known as kLab, a new space for technology entrepreneurs, or "techpreneurs," to interact and receive training to develop technology-based solutions. Here, she can help other aspiring techpreneurs to also turn their ideas into reality to best serve their country’s needs.
KLab is one of many new initiatives in the Rwandan government's strategy and partnership with private sector funders to promote information and communication technologies. Aspiring ICT entrepreneurs accepted as members of this new lab receive space, trainings and software to develop ideas to benefit their fellow citizens. Initiatives like kLab aim to overcome challenges in the field, such as a lack of entrepreneurial opportunities at universities and ICT in the local language. Its directors have set goals to expand in the coming year, with mentors like Iribagiza calling for more women.
In 2011, the government began to collaborate with the private sector and development partners to form an ICT strategy. The Rwanda government, led by the Information, Communication and Technology Chamber of the Private Sector Federation, the private sector’s counterpart to the Chamber of Commerce, made education in this field one of Rwanda’s top priorities, investing in it as a tool to help steer the country to a middle-income nation by 2020.
“The government started fading out to let civil society and the private sector take the lead,” says Atsushi Yamanaka, the national ICT strategy and policy implementation adviser at Rwanda Development Board, the government agency that directs investment in Rwanda across all sectors and a partner in the