Mobile phones are essential in Rwanda. More than 70 percent of the population owns a one and many people own two or more. Yet, just 22 percent of people have access to electricity, meaning they have trouble charging all these phones, according to the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority.
This is where entrepreneur Henri Nyakarundi saw a niche. His business, African Renewable Energy Distributor (ARED), consists of solar-powered charging kiosks that provide phone charging as well as airtime and mobile money transfers. He has developed a franchise system where people run his kiosks as their own businesses.
Nyakarundi won the American Society for Mechanical Engineers’ Innovation Showcase which recognizes entrepreneurs for hardware-led social ventures.
The son of Rwandan refugees, Nyakarundi was born in Kenya and grew up in Burundi. He went to Rwanda for the first time in 1996 on vacation after the war ended. Moving to Atlanta, U.S., in 1996, Nyakarundi attended university, earning a degree in computer science from Georgia State University. In 2012 he returned to live in Rwanda full time.
Nyakarundi spoke to AFKInsider on why he left the US to venture into the solar business in Rwanda.
AFKInsider: Why did you leave the U.S.?
Nyakarundi: I had built a successful trucking business in Atlanta, but it can be really hard to maintain a business in the U.S. Your life is all about work. And during the economic crisis I started to reevaluate things. I didn’t just want to only make money. I wanted to do something that would help people. I was at a crossroads and I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life.
AFKInsider: The Rwanda you came home to must have been a very different Rwanda.
Nyakarundi: Of course. Even though I grew up in Burundi, we would try to visit Rwanda and at that time Rwanda was going through a lot of problems. It was nothing but a desert. When I left, I told myself I would never come back but in 2008 I really started looking into coming back. I really didn’t like the social life of the U.S. Everything is about money, so I was really considering moving to Africa. Today, Rwanda is developing into a great country full of opportunities.
AFKInsider: How does your company, African Renewable Energy Distributor, work?
Nyakarundi: It is a mobile solar kiosk platform I created to promote entrepreneurship at the base of the pyramid using a low-cost franchise business model. We offer solar-powered mobile kiosks, through which people can make money by letting people charge their phones, among other services.
AFKInsider: Why the phone charging kiosk?
Nyakarundi: When I came back to Rwanda I realized renewable energy was a fast-growing sector and there was a lot of space for innovation. And it was important for me to create something that catered to the African market. Cell phones are growing rapidly in Africa, yet electricity is still a problem for so many, especially in Rwanda.
And I knew this would be challenging. For me that is the most exciting thing about this. There are so many challenges, and I love overcoming challenges.
AFKInsider: How did you fund your startup?
Nyakarundi: I have self funded the whole project. It took two years to develop the kiosk but I initially came up with the idea in 2009 while still in the U.S.
AFKInsider: Is the Rwandan government helpful to small business owners?
Nyakarundi: No, and I don’t expect them to be. Of course they have programs for small businesses and are starting an innovation program, but it is my belief that governments should focus on other things besides innovation. Like all governments, the government in Rwanda moves too slowly to truly support innovators. Innovations is something that has to be acted upon immediately and the government is just too big, too slow to do that.
AFKInsider: What have been some of challenges you have faced?
Nyakarundi: Getting people to understand the importance of innovation, as well as the usual start-up challenges such as funding, development, and finding employees.
AFKInsider: How has business been?
Nyakarundi: We’re growing. Right now we have 25 kiosks, 30 percent of which are run by women, and 5 percent are run by people with disabilities. We plan to have 100 more kiosks this year and 500 total in Rwanda.
AFKInsider: Why should someone franchise run one of your kiosks?
Nyakarundi: We take care of all the back end for them, so all they have to do is plug into our system, take the training, and then find a location.
AFKInsider: What are you looking ahead for 2016?
Nyakarundi: To finish the development of a new, updated kiosk and (development of software that provides content) — M-Shiriki. With M-Shiriki, content providers will be able to use the new kiosks to conduct surveys, provide educational content and even conduct campaigns. Artists can even upload content on to the server for purchase by the end user. Content providers load their content on African Renewable Energy Distributor’s centralized hard drive. Users will have access to the content. And we currently have a partnership with the Red Cross and have already put these kiosks at all of the refugee camps where a majority of the refugees are kids. The camps have a problem educating these kids, and now they can access educational content from our kiosk. We also want to expand our coverage to Uganda, Kenya, and South Sudan over the next year.