Inside kLab, Rwanda’s biggest technology innovation hub

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Some of the young tech enthusiasts at work at kLab in Kigali. File.

A trip to the sixth floor of Telecom House in Kacyiru, Kigali, could as well be considered one into a place where dreams float in the air like giant hot air balloons, dreams that are literally visible to youngsters and geeks. This is the Knowledge Lab, aka kLab, one of the principal co-working spaces in the country.

The concentration with which young individuals go about their computers at kLab would pretty much rival that of a heart surgeon in a theatre. Some are working to turn their ideas into great businesses, others learning how to code, develop software and applications.

It is here at kLab that most local ideas that eventually turn into successful businesses are conceived. KLab is basically the meeting point of innovators and entrepreneurs, and a place where over 60 companies have been born, according to statistics.

One of the folks I meet as I go around is Regis Bwenge, who is barely a week at the hub. In tech speak, a rookie. Bwenge is a college dropout, but strongly determined to pursue a career in technology. He narrates of how he ended up at kLab.

“I have been here for a week now, but the experience is outstanding. Everyone here is so humble and willing to share what they have. I expect to be here for more than a month learning web designing, coding and other skills that will help me kick-start a career in ICT,” he says.

Bwenge had his first training session on Tuesday morning, but he never had a computer when he was coming here. His mentor gave him a computer and promised to help him start a profitable project, if he found out that he was a quick learner.

“A friend told me about this place and when I came here, I was immediately fascinated with what others were doing. I met my mentor, shook hands, took a tour of the hub and he introduced me to others, after which I was given a computer. I immediately said in my mind that this is the place to realise my dreams,” the excited 27-year-old narrates.

Surprisingly, Bwenge’s passion to join a group of innovators changing the innovative milieu of the country has nothing to do with what he was pursuing at university. Before dropping out, he was doing Accounting.

Sat at a corner inside the hub is another female youngster buried in her computer. As I approach her, she grins and greats me. This is Sharon Mutesi, a 19-year-old high school graduate from Ecole Technique Librest Emmanuel de Masaka based in Masaka, a Kigali suburb.

At her age, she’s already started working on a number of projects, including ‘Guriza’, which is a registered peer-to-peer money lending solution that will enable people to work with financial institutions to easily access loans.

This is a technology-based financial solution she’s currently working on with a few other girls.

“I personally feel this is a place where I should be. The enthusiasm of the innovators and entrepreneurs is just a motivation, especially to young girls like us. When I completed my secondary school, I decided to come here. My confidence is sky-high,” she says.

After teaming up with other girls, Mutesi hopes to tap into the potential of financial technology sector and utilise the available opportunities that she says have been put in place for young people. If successful, Guriza will facilitate communities to easily access loans. They already started making trial tests, and plan to launch it soon.

KLab is a breed of innovative startup entrepreneurs. Moreover, it is a meeting point for investors, students, programmers, coders and tech engineers.

A few metres away stands ‘Mergims’, a fast-growing startup business owned by Louis Antoine Muhire. Mergims is a success story, a convenient payment platform for basic urgent products and services, such as water, electricity, telecom, education, and hospital bills.

It is in the form of web app, mobile application, and through sms using USSD. USSD is a system used by non-smart phones. It is the equivalent of such platforms such as Android for Samsung smart phones.

Muhire left a comfortable job in Canada where he was working for Montreal Police Intelligence Unit and returned home to start his company while at kLab. It is here that his passion was nurtured.

Patrick Buchana is another innovator whose company was born from kLab. Buchana is the chief executive of AC Group Ltd, a company providing smart transport solutions like Tap&Go for public transportation in Kigali. He recently launched the solution in Yaounde, Cameroon, and his clients range from national to regional and international consumers.

The World Economic Forum, African Union, and Government of Rwanda are some of his clients.

These are some of the stories that exemplify the importance of kLab to the local innovations ecosystem, and the impact it has had to young entrepreneurs and innovators.

Aphrodice Mutangana, the general manager of kLab, says figures tell a worthy story of the existence of the tech hub.

“We are working with more than 1,400 members today, while 51,600 used kLab premises last year. They were facilitated and supported through mentorship, trainings and competitions. We are now counting over 60 companies that have been born from this hub. This was just beyond our expectations when we were starting out,” he says.

Mutangana, who has been leading kLab since 2015, happily talks about the achievements of the startup, despite the challenges that innovators here still face. He says, through kLab, more than 150,000 youngsters have been trained in coding skills since 2015, and they are targeting to train another 150,000 this year.

Some of the biggest challenges that the innovators face is the access to finance to implement their projects. To offset this, they work with investors who promote some of the outstanding innovations.

“We have a number of activities such as showcases, workshops, hackathons and networking sessions with view to add value to members’ experience. It is through this that we promote and facilitate the development of innovative ICT solutions,” Mutangana says.

Opening new kLab branches

As part of efforts to maximise the opportunities to other young people across the country, kLab plans to open doors in other parts of the country.

“This would be the biggest thing we can ever do for innovators,” says Mutangana, who also owns FOYO Group, a company that provides e-Health in Rwanda.

This month, kLab is expected to open a branch in Karongi District in Western Province. Other branches are expected to be opened in secondary cities across the country by the end of the year.

“We are not going to sleep not until we have set up our own investment fund. The kLab Fund is opening this year, and I must say a lot of work is being done to mobilise funds from different investors. Some have actually made commitments already,” he says.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw