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December 4, 2017
Rwanda, where I was attacked years ago, is now a world of cheap, fast, technology
I went to see Dian Fossey, savior of the mountain gorillas, but she was stabbed to death just two days earlier. And in the course of my trip an aggressive young male gorilla brought me to my knees. We were warned by the guide, who carried a gun, not to make threatening gestures when in the presence of the gorillas.
I didn’t realize raising my camera was considered a threatening gesture but a young aggressive male took it personally. So he came running at me from a distance of about 20 feet, roaring and pounding on his chest. But I’d been told how to react. Get down on your knees, ASAP, and keep your nose in the dirt till he gets bored, has recognized that you accept him as the boss, and walks away to return to his insect eating. All went according to plan.
But that was yesterday’s Rwanda. As evidenced by the successful effort to lure Carnegie Mellon to Kigali six years ago—Rwanda is rapidly becoming an education success story. As recently as 2008 no place outside Kigali had fiber-optic cables. By 2010 the entire country was covered by a network.
India is well on its way to becoming a global production center for electronic products. What other continent can do that? Africa!
In 2010 an 18-year-old computer wizard traveled to Kigali, Rwanda. Kariuki got a job designing an automated ticketing system for the capital city’s bus system. Although Kigali was among Africa’s tidiest and most crime-free cities, it’s transit system was woefully in keeping with the norm on the continent. Because the buses (really just vans) were unreliable, overcrowded, and glacial in velocity, most commuters relied on motorcycle-taxi drivers, who are notoriously reckless.
Kariuki and friend Nash returned to Kigali in spring 2015 with the finalized software for the concept they had dubbed SafeMotos. Today, the Rwandan start-up, initially funded with $126,000 is the first and largest motorcycle ride-sharing company in Africa. It partners with more than 400 licensed and painstakingly monitored-taxi drivers in Kigali, who are likely to make 800,000 trips this year.
Gross revenue for 2017 is projected to be $1.1 million. “My dream, Kariuki told me recently on the rooftop balcony of one of Kigali’s many sparkling new hotels, “is to establish Kigali as our stronghold that no one can touch—and from there move into 10 other cities.
The pride of Engineer belongs to a wave of digital entrepreneurs who aim to transform sub-Saharan Africa. Their emergence coincides with the ubiquity of mobile phones throughout the continent, as well as the arrival of high-speed Internet—which, as recently as a decade ago, was rare in most of Africa.
During the past few years, tens of millions of dollars in venture capital has flowed from the West into such countries as Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, and South Africa. The result is a generation of innovators whose homegrown ideas could, in the manner of SafeMotos, improve the lives of their fellow Africans.
Elsewhere an app called iCow helps herders manage their cattle populations. Another, named Kytabu, makes it possible for students and teachers in underprivileged schools to lease textbooks on mobile devices. However unwelcome economic disadvantage may be, in Africa it has sparked ingenuity. As Michel Bezy, the associate director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Kigali campus, observes, “When you and I need something we go on Amazon. In the village they have to invent it. I see it with my students. They’re much more creative over here.”
In a Kenya farming village about 200 miles by road from Peter Kariuki’s Rwanda birthplace, a child named Peris Bosire would sit in a field while her mother harvested maize and would strain to imagine any other sort of life. Everyone she met in Kebuse was a farmer, or a teacher who educated future farmers. Few made any money. The rough road made it laborious for them to get their crops to market. They simple consumed what they grew and remained trapped in the village’s primitive sameness.
But Bosire’s fate took a turn at age 10, when her parents sent her to a modest boarding school so that she would not have to make the three-mile round-trip walk to class anymore. Someone had donated seven used Dell desktop computers. The girls’ eyes were uncomprehending when she first beheld them. She’d never so much as seen a cell phone. She had no idea how to type. But she was uncommonly intelligent and before long she understood what those computer srepresented: Peris Bosire’s ticket out of the village.
As with Kariuki, Bosire’s grades qualified her for a superior high school, with a bona fide computer lab. She won a national science competition and a scholarship to the University of Nairobi. Her dorm roommate, Riae Kimani, was also from a poor farming community and had a similar way with computers. Bosier and Kimani became inseparable and a nearly unbeatable team on the tech-contest circuit. In mulling over their future, Bosire recalls, “we started looking back at how we grew up and how our parents did farming. And we realized that none of them had ever received a loan to improve their farming activities.”
Bosire and Kimani launcedh FarmDrive in May 2015. The digital recordkeeping platform serves as a basis for bankers to establish credit ratings and determine which farmers are best suited for small loans. FarmDrive’s pilot program consisted of 50 farmers. Today hundreds of thousands are in FarmDrive’s database; about 830 have received financing. In turn the banks pay FarmDrive for essentially functioning as their credit bureau for Kenya’s vast farming community. The entrepreneurs have no intention of stopping there. ”There are more than five million small farmers in Kenya” Bosire says. ”Throughout Africa it’s about 50 million. But when we started FarmDrive we always had global ambitions. We’re building solutions for farmers in Asia too.
Sure glad I took the advice of the guide regarding the gorilla’s behavior or I would have missed out on everything happening in Rwanda today!
The preceding stories (except for the gorilla incident) are excerpts from the December 2017 issue of National Geographic of which I’ve been a subscriber for many years.
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