Henri Nyakarundi is the CEO/Founder of Ared company and the winner of the “ICT for Social Good” Grant, organised by Ong2.0 within the Innovation for Development Programme. In Rwanda, Nyakarundi developed Shiriki Hub, a mobile solar kiosk, which offers customers a convenient low-cost solution to charge their phones, to browse the web and to have free offline access to digital content such as news and information on health and education. The Scientific Committee of the Grant evaluated Nyakarundi’s project as the best one among the 233 applications received.
We asked him some questions to get to know him better and here is what we discovered.
By Viviana Brun
Let’s start from the very beginning, where are you from and what’s your family and education background?
I was born in Kenya but grew up in Burundi but we were refugees from Rwanda. When I graduated high school in 1996, my parents decided to send me and my sister to the USA to continue our studies because the region was unstable. Burundi was at war and Rwanda was recovering from a genocide. We got our Rwandan citizenship in 1995.
What did you study and where?
I did my high school at Ecole Française de Bujumbura and my university at Georgia State University in Computer Science. I graduated in 2003
Who had the biggest impact on your career?
My mother. My mother was the backbone of our family, she put us through college, had a full-time job and running businesses on the side to pay our tuition. Even though we were refugees in Burundi, we were able to get the best education, her work ethics and discipline was unmatched. She owns her home in a time where it was difficult for women to own properties. Every time I am down, or want to give up I just remind myself of the struggle she went through and I quickly move forward.
Why did you decide to turn back to Africa and why did you choose Rwanda as the country to live in?
In 2009, I started coming back to Africa on a regular basis, and I started seeing how the narrative of the continent was changing. Innovation was booming. In the US, I had reached a plateau and iI did not feel that I can have any positive impact there. Because Africa was and is facing so many challenges, I knew this is where I can best apply some of my skill set.
Rwanda had changed dramatically, it was easier to start a business, today you can register a business in 4 hours, they have good infrastructure, great place to pilot new technology and of course the fact that I was Rwandan also motivated me more to start there.
I read somewhere that you are “an entrepreneur at heart”, is this true and what does this mean for you?
It means at least to me, I was born to be an entrepreneur. I started my first business when I was 20, and I fell in love with it even those it took me 10 years to build my first successful business. I almost quitted school to pursue it full time even then but my mother let just say deter me from quitting. I love solving problems and I believe that is what an entrepreneur is all about.
How do you create Shiriki Hub? Where the idea comes from?
Initially, Shiriki Hub was supposed to be a simple charging kiosk. The idea came from my travel in Burundi and Rwanda and seeing people having their phones but always looking for a place to charge them. I was not planning to build my own product. In the beginning, I was looking for an existing product but could not find one. I was seeing charging solutions at the airport, and I thought it would be great to have that on the streets of Africa to help people. That is when it all started. I hired a designer and an engineer and then the journey started.
What is the biggest challenge when, as you said on Ared website, you do business at the “base of the pyramid”?
First, people mindset, bring innovative solutions and innovative business model it takes time for people to understand and adopt it, so you have to spend a lot of time educating the people.
Second, building a technology suitable for the terrain of rural and semi-urban Africa is extremely hard.
Finally, building a sustainable business at the base of the pyramid is extremely hard.
What’s the aspect of your job that keeps you awake at night?
Running out of money before we can scale, finish our technology and build a sustainable business. This is hard and it requires strong financial backing for us to be successful.
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Never give up no matter what, there is always a solution to a problem.
What role that ICT could play in strengthening the local development and the business ecosystem in Africa?
I believe ICT is the key that will bridge the information gap that exists with low-income people. Access to information is key to improve someone’s livelihood. However, it is still considered a luxury in a lot of communities. As we are facing global warming, and Africa will be most affected continent, accessing key information to minimize the effect of global warming will be a matter of life and death in the future.
Also ICT has open the door to a new generation of entrepreneurs, all you need now is human capital and an internet connection to build an app. I believe ICT has opened the door to a new set of creative mind and has given hope to a whole new generation of young Africans.
How can Shriki Hub be considered an inclusive business?
Shiriki Hub is specifically targeting low-income people, especially women and people with disabilities that have no other opportunities to make a living. We also focus on refugees that are, a lot of time, not included in any economic opportunities of the countries they live in. A lot of people are willing to work, want to work but because they do not have a college degree or come from poor families they lack option and this is why Ared was developed.
What’s the price for a phone charge? And for browsing the Internet?
In Rwanda is 10 cent, the internet is sold in increments of 5, 10, 30, 60 minutes and it is free for the 5 and 10. They pay 30 cent for 30 minutes and 50 cents for 60 minutes.
In terms of revenues, what is the core business of Shiriki Hub?
We have 3 revenue streams.
1. We share revenue with our micro franchisees on the sales of digital services like airtime, internet, gov services etc….
2. We offer advert on wifi network and we also can do survey or campaign for our clients and corporate partners or NGO’s
3. Finally, we starting to collect a lot of data, and we working on adding IOT technology then find buyers to some of the data we plan to collect like CO2 levels etc…
What is the average net revenue per month that Shiriki Hub provides to kiosk operators?
Micro franchisees generate on average 100$ a month on all services they provide on the kiosk. The goal is to add more services to increase both or our revenue.
What is the relationship between kiosk operators and Ared company during all the business phases?
We are partners, therefore we work closely together. The reason why we pick a micro-franchise model is that it’s a win-win situation. We provide the training, support and maintenance and the micro franchisees takes care of the end users. This is the key to being sure that the whole value chain is fluid enough so issues can be addressed quickly.
Where the kiosk components are made and why?
Battery and panels come from China, the wheel from Australia, the router system from the USA and the frame is made locally.
Is the government supporting somehow the social entrepreneurs in Rwanda? What could it be done better?
Not yet, we need tax law to better support social entrepreneurs by offering a tax credit, for example, NGOs are exempt from taxes, but because we are for profit we are taxed like a traditional business even those our focus in social impact first. We need our own tax categories, we need better access to funding, grants for R&D, we need an easier way to work with local government so we can reach to more communities on the ground. The government need to facilitate partnership so we can work together and speed up the impact. One of the biggest challenges in Rwanda, is that urbanization has banned a lot of the street vendor business and people are not given alternatives. The bottom line is we fighting the same fight, better the lives of people, if we do not work together we might fail on the fight against poverty.
How many kiosks are now operative and in which countries?
We have 25 solar kiosks in Rwanda, we just launch in Uganda in May, we just received most of our licensing so we plan to start our pilot project in November with 5 kiosks.
What is your message to social entrepreneurs?
If you do not have the passion to help others and solve huge problems do not become a social entrepreneur because it is harder than traditional business. Patience and extreme focus is the key.
What are your plans for the future?
Expansion, expansion, expansion. More than 400 million people live in poverty in Africa, so the need of solutions like ARED is in high demand, We want to be in 20 countries in the next 10 years, implement around 100000 solar kiosks. But first we need to finish our product development, we working on adding IOT technology on the kiosk to better monitor the kiosk on the ground and collect additional data.