Some three years ago, five young, promising African entrepreneurs were invited to speak at the sixth instalment of the annual Pakasa Forum organised by Vision Group.
The event which took place at Kampala Parents School in September drew significant attendance from a number of aspiring entrepreneurs within Uganda and other parts of East Africa.
Vision Group had sought to use the medium to inspire and motivate budding Ugandan entrepreneurs by leveraging the unique stories of the invited speakers – who themselves are business leaders – so as to provide actionable insights into mindset change, personal responsibility to success, and hard work, as it concerns entrepreneurial success.
And the company may have landed more than what it bargained for when a certain Rwandan tech entrepreneur named Clarisse Iribagiza took to the stage.
By the time the then 27-year-old was done sharing her experiences from an entrepreneurial journey that took off from her college days, she left no one in doubt as to how far she’s come and how much venture firepower she now bore in her tech arsenal.
Born in January 1988 to parents that were teacher and entrepreneur on either side, Iribagiza was worked into the “can-do-mindset” from an early stage in her life.
Her parents were enlightened people and they were relentless in encouraging both her and her siblings to be ambitious and pursue meaningful careers.
You’d be tempted to think such conditions laid the groundwork for the making of the techie and even though you won’t be entirely wrong, Iribagiza does have a slightly-less glowing view.
Sure, the push from her parents may have yielded fruit in the end but the Rwandan entrepreneur remembers a childhood where she was always under pressure to impress. And those aren’t some of her fonder memories.
But these days, though, she probably remembers those times while wearing a wry smile and perhaps think of it as the fire before the gold. And that’s because, while the climb may have been at times excruciating, the view at the top seems to have made all the effort feel like a rather small price to pay – well worth it! Now, she’s mentioned in the same breath as some of the biggest players in Rwanda’s tech industry.
More than just a successful businesswoman, Clarisse Iribagiza wholly epitomizes what could be considered a new crop of young African women entrepreneurs who have defied stereotypes and smashed numerous glass ceilings to mark out their own turf in a field that used to considered the territory of the menfolk.
And make no mistake about it; she’s not just punching above her weight, she’s bossing the ring like Ali in his prime. Iribagiza holds the reins at HeHe Labs Limited (also known as DMM.HeHe Ltd.), and she’s carving a niche for herself in the area of Information Technology.
Her company is best-known as one of Rwanda’s foremost, indigenous mobile technology research and innovation labs. Under her stewardship, the company has become a force to reckon with on the Rwandan tech scene and the female entrepreneur is becoming one of the leading lights in changing minds and transforming the lives of young Africans.
Iribagiza took those first ‘baby steps’ during her days at the University of Rwanda’s College of Science and Technology. She had always possessed an aptitude for the STEM fields right from her high school days and it was kind of a given that Computer Engineering and Information Technology became her course of study at the tertiary institution.
The foundations for her business was laid in 2010 when she was still a junior college student – aged only 22 at the time.
Fresh from taking part in the six-week Accelerating Information Technology Innovation programme put together by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – where she had learned to put some of the theoretical knowledge she had acquired into practically solving some real-world problems – she was on the lookout for areas of opportunity.
Having gotten to grips with some practical knowledge, all it took was a few weeks of brainstorming and the idea for the mobile technology business hit her.
That same year, she set up HeHe Labs Limited; a software development company that enables businesses and organisations to reach their markets and audiences by means of an easy and affordable platform.
HeHe Labs Limited has grown to become one of the leaders of the mobile technology revolution that is taking place in Rwanda and beyond – building novel solutions for businesses and organisations to reach their preferred audience faster in convenient and affordable ways.
The company’s software makes it possible for customers to give feedback to companies and government agencies through text messages. The messages are recorded for review on a dedicated website.
According to the Rwandan entrepreneur, it is the difficulties faced by ordinary Rwandans in assessing relevant information that inspired her to come up with the idea. But it was anything but a “ready-set-go” undertaking. There wasn’t some stroke of a magic wand and a “voila!” moment.
“It was a lot of experimenting for us – we tried out so many ideas and at the end of it all we learned how to build mobile information systems – basically endless databases of relevant information, and build applications on top of that,” she says.
The company has found its turf in building IT programmes in the enterprise, education, and public sectors. Through HeHe, hundreds of Rwandan SMEs are able to interact with their customers in different locations at the same time. This is facilitated by the mobile and web-based platforms that have been developed by Iribagiza and her team.
Since coming into Rwanda’s tech scene, the company has also made its presence felt in the area of capacity-building – it is known to have invested in the research and training of young Rwandans in an effort to develop skills in IT and entrepreneurship.
More so, HeHe Labs runs a programme in which high school students are nurtured and trained in such aspects as ICT, critical thinking, and technology design.
It has also partnered with GirlHub Rwanda on a project which aims to motivate thousands of Rwandan girls to reach for the top, as well as offer support in bringing some of their dreams to life.
In 2011, Iribagiza collaborated with several other ICT entrepreneurs to establish iHills; an association of Rwandan youths who are cutting their teeth in the field of ICT.
Charged with transforming Rwanda into one of Africa’s most active tech hubs, iHills offers mentorship to aspiring tech entrepreneurs and also helps sort out finance and market concerns.
For her efforts, Iribagiza has been the recipient of several awards and recognition. In 2012, she scooped the USD 50 K grand prize in a competition dubbed ‘Inspire Africa,’ having bested 23 other entrepreneurs drawn from various countries in East Africa.
The following year, she was addressing African leaders at the Transform Africa Summit in Rwanda, representing young Rwandan entrepreneurs. She walked away with USD 7.5 K at the end of the day having won the startup pitching competition which was one of the highlights of the event.
A few months later, she was recognized by the Imbuto Foundation – a pet project of Jeanette Kagame; Rwanda’s first lady – who rewarded her for her impressive accomplishments.
What followed in 2014 and 2015 respectively were mentions in the 100 Global Thinkers list put together by the Italian think tank, Lo Spazio della Politica (LSDP), and Forbes 30 Under 30.
By her reckoning, the business climate in Rwanda is currently quite favourable to the growth of innovative ventures and these days, she’s all about doing her bit to help aspiring entrepreneurs thrive and make the most of the opportunities that abound.
Featured Image Courtesy: thisisafrica.me