Despite the many challenges Rwandan startup ecosystem face, it has seen continuous growth over the years with increased funding, a new generation of eager and talented innovators, increased access to mentorship and technology. The New Times’ Alice Kagina caught up with Julienne Oyler, Founder and CEO of Inkomoko, to discuss the organisation’s ten-year journey of supporting businesses and producing a next generation of entrepreneurs on the continent. September 2022, saw Inkomoko celebrate its 10th anniversary. That is a major milestone. How did all this begin? Thank You. The journey of Inkomoko started when my co-founder Sara and I were traveling around various parts of the continent, West Africa and East Africa. One of the things that tied together this experience was the amount of smart and creative people that we saw, it didn’t matter whether we were in the capital city or in the rural areas. There were young people who had great ideas and tremendous commitment to improve their communities but lacked resources. So, when we started Inkomoko, we really wanted to keep those young people in front and center by offering a service that helped people with good ideas and take them to market so that they could be the job creators that our countries desperately need and also be the ones solving our communities most pressing issues. What would you say has been the most rewarding part of the journey so far? There have been so many rewarding parts of the last ten years and it’s hard to pick just one, but if I had to; it was talking with one of our early clients called Temaco Builders, and this was started by one young man who wanted to turn his idea into a business. He started his business about the same time Inkomoko started in Rwanda, so, at our 10-year celebration we were actually able to celebrate our 10 years together. He brought a cheque of Rwf1,000,000 and said: “I want Inkomoko to take this money and invest it in a young startup...because Inkomoko, you took a chance on us before we had made a name for ourselves and we want to pay it forward to a young startup and we want them to know that the community believes in them.” You started in Rwanda and have now grown to support businesses in other African countries. Starting with Kenya and Ethiopia. Why start with Rwanda, and how did you select other countries? When I first came to Rwanda in 2012, almost instantly I knew that this was the country where we wanted to launch. You see it when you walk down the streets and they are clean, and you feel safe, but also just this country with an environment for being an entrepreneur and supporting small businesses. The fact that Rwanda has made it easy and straightforward to start a business, we confirmed this was a place to be. And as we think about other countries, we want to take lessons we are learning here to other new markets, so far working in both Kenya and Ethiopia. One of commendable elements of Inkomoko is prioritizing impact investment. Other than the financial return, how do you measure impact of the businesses you work with? We want to see businesses grow, so, we measure the growth in terms of their monthly turnover, how many employees they are hiring, we also want to them accumulate assets to add capacity to their businesses. We work with a number of business types, SMEs and micro businesses out in various communities especially those in and around refugee camps, so we also consider how those businesses are helping people improve their lives; are they eating healthy diets? Are their kids going to school? Are they able to generate wealth for future generations? So, it’s not just about them being able to repay their investments but seeing growth and livelihood improvement. From your experience working with SMEs, what would you say are the top three challenges that either slow their progress or compromise their sustainability? Our experience with SMEs has been very rewarding but as you know, it’s difficult. The advice we give to SMEs, regardless of whatever industry they’re in is that you have to understand your customer. And far too often when we start businesses, we ask “If I had this product, would you buy it from me?” and we typically make decisions based on those scenarios, but when we see businesses succeed it’s much more of people paying for things. Let us talk about women-owned businesses. Several studies have shown that women are less likely to apply and receive the much-needed capital and financial advisory to grow their businesses. What practical actions is Inkomoko taking to deliberately support women? Over the last 10 years, Inkomoko has worked with over 40,000 micro, small, and medium enterprises, and 55 percent of those businesses are women-led, but these women have more hurdles to access financing and business support. So, we made it a point figure out how we can support women entrepreneurs and we do that in a couple of ways. We hire women staff so that there is a link of service when a female advisor meets a female entrepreneur, we have female investment officers to sort of providing a familiar type of conversation, and we also have women business groups where we have opportunities for women entrepreneurs in Mombasa to connect with those in Kigali and share their experiences, challenges, and opportunities. Related to the above, is inclusion of youth and people with disabilities. How do you make sure your services are inclusive? To be perfectly honest, I think, at Inkomoko, we still have a lot more to do. One of the things we do in our trainings is to make sure we have instructors who speak local languages, use facilities accessible to people who have mobility issues, and sign language interpreters where needed, but it’s still not enough and as we work forward in communities of different types of entrepreneurs, we need to make sure we provide equitable and inclusive services. One of the critics towards such organisations is less or no follow up after the grant period. How do you respond to that and what is Inkomoko doing to ensure that the relationship with businesses goes beyond funding phase? We get businesses that have millions of different needs, and unfortunately, we can’t respond to every need. So, we offer services that are broad but also empower those business owners to take that knowledge and find more resources once they leave Inkomoko. But as we continue to grow, we offer new services. As we look to the next 10 years, we are thinking about the post-investment advisory service to offer considering specific industries. We have to stay relevant in the market for us to succeed. Entrepreneurship is not easy but can be very rewarding. What tips would you give someone to be a successful entrepreneur? To be a successful entrepreneur takes a number of things. It requires understanding the community. You have to have a product or service that your community needs. For the other part, personally, it is surrounding yourself with advisors, people who have experience, who push and challenge you. It’s in being humble and believing in you and your team and to keep showing up every day. Those are hard things when you are starting but you have to prove yourself. Finally, what is your vision for the next 10 years, where would you like to be in terms of presence? When Inkomoko started, we had this big dream of working with 100 businesses per year, and we said if we could do that, then by our 10-year mark we would work with a couple thousand, and now in 2022 alone, we are working with 12,000 businesses, so we are far beyond what we ever thought possible. In Rwanda, we have grown from one office in Kigali to nine offices across the country, we are working in eight districts. And one of the things am really excited about is being intentional about expanding to secondary cities, next month, we are opening an office in Huye (District) and Kabarore (Sector). I believe with a broader network of our services, we can reach more people in all parts of the country. By the end of 2030, we will work with over half a million businesses in more than 40 communities, in five countries. The impact it will have, not just at Inkomoko level, but for people’s lives, and businesses to be connected together, I think it’s going to be incredibly powerful. As we see Inkomoko growing over the next 10 years, it’s not only about serving individual businesses but how we connect them to larger opportunities and being able to trade across the continent.