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Building a Software Company in Rwanda, 3 Years Later (blog.textit.in)
123 points by nicpottier 1511 days ago | hide | past | web | 78 comments | favorite

What a super project this. It's braver than anything I'd ever attempt, I try to sweep my own street as much as possible but this is so far out of my comfort zone (starting with the climate) that I have nothing but sheer admiration for you.

No, no, that is the wrong takeaway! It is not a brave thing at all, that is the point I'm trying to get across. The end result may seem big, but it was from many small steps, no bigger than you are capable of. My advice, just take that first step, get involved in software taking place in the developing world, see what you can do to help. It's just a matter of small steps from there.

Right. But from where I'm sitting I see the end result of all your little steps and that end result blows me away. I know that you can do stuff like this (Emigrated to Canada, not exactly the developing world but you'd be surprised at the poverty there in some places, worked and lived there for 5 years to mixed effect).

The brave bit to me is to leave your comfort zone in such a decisive way. Feel free to disagree, I'll call you modest and brave ;)

Just do it! I really can't imagine regretting it, even if everything goes South.

Are you entertaining visitors? If so that's something that I just might do. Long term move is right now out of the question due to other commitments.

Hah, sure! shoot me an email (username @gmail) and we can talk. It isn't cheap flying here but you can definitely crash at mine.

Ok, mail sent.

I agree that you guys are brave. I have been thinking of making an important step for a while now, basically moving into software development/startups from a finance/accounting job, and I just can't wrap my head around such a change. I lived in many places, so that is not my silver bullet, but gosh leaving my 9-5 life seems so risky.

How do you do it? What scares the hell out of me is the future. What happens if things go sour? How do I know I can actually be a good programmer or entrepreneur? How do I save up for my pension (I am 27, that might seem premature I know) if things go bad?

For me, moving from Seattle to Kigali was all about just deciding to do it. After the decision was made it was far, far easier. I've got a wife and kids too. I think if this is something you want, just taking the plunge without thinking too hard about it is the only way it can really happen.

As for the climate, I can say that in Rwanda it is amazing. Pretty much beautiful weather every single day. It's near the equator, but at elevation. So it hovers around 80 degrees most days with a gentle breeze. It can get hot in the middle of the day, but not uncomfortably so. Rainy season brings torrential downpours for an hour or so twice a day -- which is always welcomed.

You've got me sold :) How old are your kids? (mine 1, 3 and 19...). If you want to make some quick money you should take out a life insurance on me just before I explain the plan to my s.o.

Kids are 7 and 9. But Nic is spot on above. It really is just a bunch of small steps except for maybe a biggish one to get started. Thankfully that's the only hard one. But ya, the other thing you can do is reach out to the folks in the region you are interested in and just see how you can get involved. Relocating may in the end just seem like a natural next step.

To be honest, Kigali is one of the easiest places to do this in Africa (if not the easiest) when looking at all factors, so we are bit spoiled in that regard. I was surprised, when talking this over with my wife she was on board right from the beginning and even moved here sight-unseen. So, I'm grateful for that. Having kids also adds the extra hurdles of finding schools and such, but nothing too difficult.

Could you be a bit more specific when you say Kigali is "safe"?

Is it safe for me to move to as a woman? Is it safe for me to bring my wife and kids? These things are often relative.

Yes and yes.

My business partner, Eric, moved his family here, two young kids and his wife. Moving at night, even as a woman is very safe and commonplace in most parts of Kigali. It really is ridiculously safe here by any standard.

As an example, I am much less concerned about female friends of mine walking around alone at night in Kigali than I am my neighborhood back home in Seattle. (granted I lived in the CD which is higher crime, but still)

Sorry, I should have been more clear...

Is it safe for me, a woman, to visit there with my wife and kids? We've ruled out most of Africa in our globe trotting, but have really missed it.

Ah, sorry, yes I missed that distinction. Neighboring Uganda is very much not a great place to be for same sex couples. I do not believe Rwanda has any laws against homosexuality, but honestly you don't see it very openly here. It is still very conservative.

I would say if you are visiting it wouldn't be a problem, definitely wouldn't worry from a safety point of view. If you were planning on moving here then I honestly probably wouldn't recommend it, not because of safety, but just that you would be going against the grain.

As I'm sure you already know, gay rights have a long, long way to go in the region. If I were gay, it probably wouldn't be at the top of my list :(

I never thought I'd hear an American complain about lack of good cheese. You guys have never tasted cheese!

Great project anyway, very inspiring!

To be fair I spent the first half of my childhood in France, so I beg to differ. :)

But like I said, after years of gouda, even cheddar starts seeming like an incredible delicacy. I even like gouda, you just need some variety!

The problem with Gouda is that you get it everywhere, but not the quality Gouda. I love a old Gouda (oude kaas). Unfortunately what you get in supermarkets (outside the Netherlands) is not comparable to the really good stuff.

Lived in France half his childhood and likes good cheese != American. Pines for cheddar != French. I can relate (except for the cheddar thing, especially the cheddar that American audiences are thinking of). The digital nomads are from everywhere and from nowhere, and I wonder about our children.

And damn it, that's not a Scotsman, either!

OP here, happy to answer any questions peeps have on Nyaruka and our little journey.

Do you have to worry about Hutu/Tutsi issues still?

No, not at all. Rwanda is probably safer than any place in the states.. you can walk around anywhere in the city in the middle of the night (and I do) and there are no concerns. There is still unrest in DRC but that is very much localized.

I'm very surprised to hear you say that. My experience of Rwanda is that the issue is always just below the surface. I spent three months there 3 years ago working as a Physics teacher. The election was on when I was there and it was rather surreal, the radio was constantly going on about genocide and there was a lot of tension in the air.

Tension and violence are different things. This is still the very recent past, it is unrealistic to expect there to be no tension, especially during times of election or genocide memorials. But there is no denying it is incredibly safe and there has been so much invested in the country in the past 20 years that I just can't imagine anything happening here.

Almost unbelievable. After all the past.

Nope/Not as much. That was a mid 1990's issue. Rwanada under paul kagame has made some really good strides in development. Raising coffee and tea prices have helped the local economy to a great extent. I agree problems still exist but they are not show stoppers.

I have been interested in your company since I first heard of it a while ago so I am glad to see it is doing well. How is the infrastructure in Rwanda with regards to ecommerce? I have investigated doing business in Kenya but two of the biggest problems there are 1) online payments are not easy since few people use credit cards and paying online with M-Pesa is clumsy, and 2) there are no street addresses so it makes certain types of ecommerce difficult since there is no address to deliver a product if you are selling a physical one, or doing any type of pickup/delivery service involving locations. How are these issues dealt with in Rwanda?

And to look at commerce in the other direction, how is access to things you need for home/work? Say you need a new development laptop, are you going to amazon, local retain, or something else?

More on the consumables side, how's the coffee?

Heh, the answer here is friends with suitcases. You can buy some electronics here, Samsung and LG have a big presence, but it is at a premium. We are an Apple shop and all MBPs were bought in the states by us or friends.

That might sound like a bad thing but it is actually one of my favorite things about living here. You are just completely separated and freed from the crazed consumer culture of the States, just because none of it is available. And you don't realize how much that frees your head space (or at least mine) until you experience it. It is a fantastic place to just get work done because there is very little to distract you, in every respect really.

Coffee is pretty great if you buy the good stuff, though really the very best gets bought up and exported.

I like it, friends with suitcases works! I hear you on the head space. Thanks for the response.

Yes, both those challenges still exist, payments are actually even worse here than Kenya because there isn't huge adoption of any mobile money platform yet.

Both of those pretty much preclude doing anything ecommerce related

You mention you have two young kids. What's the education system like in general for kids in Rwanda?

I don't have a lot of experience for what school is like generally, but I can speak about it from an ex-pat's perspective. Our kids go to a Rwandan school (though a prestigious private school). It's far, far cheaper than private school in the states. Like most schools, the experience you have is highly dependent on the teacher you get, but we've been pretty lucky in that regard.

In some ways the academics are a step down and in others they are step up. For example, some of the subjects can be a bit rote, but my youngest has half of his classes taught in french (even though we are not french speakers). On the whole we are quite satisfied with their school. We also remind ourselves that as humans, we learn in so many ways and having our kids experience life in Rwanda (or anywhere outside of America for that matter) is one of the finest gifts we can offer.

I live abroad and my soon is not even a year old. I look forward to this, and the idea of having a grandson who will speaks multiple languages natively (I am English-speaking, my SO speaks Arabic natively) is very exiciting to my parents. I am waiting until he is older, but I look forward to even getting him into a language school so he will natively speak 3 or more languages.

Only if they had Chinese schools where I am . . .

Move to Oakland county outside Detroit where the public schools teach Mandarin from first grade on. Even better they use teachers from China.


Their long term goal is that with the entire population someday being fluent in Mandarin the area will become the first choice for Chinese manufacturing firms setting up plants in the U.S.

Very cool but I live in the MENA region and that is not going to change anytime soon.

Still, very awesome.

I went to Rwanda last year and it was by far one of the most beautiful countries I've visited.

Being a "Mzungu" ("rich" person- note I'm not really rich, but am compared to most Rwandans) was definitely something I didn't expect. For some reason, I had no expectations about class prior to going.

It's really cool that you started this company there and are looking to help Rwanda from the inside out. Good luck to you- if (when) I go back to Rwanda, I'll be sure to come check out kLab.

Mzungu means white man, surely. In Nyanja (Central Africa/Zambia) at least.

mzungu just means foreigner or outsider

I find it sad that a company based in Rwanda, primarily targeting East Africa, decided to use infrastructure owned by an American company and operating in the US. Did you look for an infrastructure provider that's more local? Maybe one of the European hosting providers, if there isn't a good one in Africa?

(Note: I happen to be American. But that doesn't mean I automatically think that the whole world should use our products and services.)

I'm ex-Amazon and believe they provide an awesome service, so no, I don't see any problem or sadness in that in the least. The last thing the world needs is propping up inferior systems for the sake of Nationalism, much less in the software sector.

Amazon provides a great product and has never let us down, if an East African competitor pops up and does the same, I'll move in a heartbeat.

For me it's not about nationalism as much as avoiding excessive centralization. I find it appalling that so many services are concentrated in a few buildings in northern Virginia. (Or is it one building?) Did you at least use a region other than us-east-1? I can't tell from reverse DNS lookups or traceroute.

I'm ok with centralization. Again if a better provider pops up, I'll move there, but until then I'm fine with commodities going to the best providers.

What's the difference between an american provider and an european one from an african perspective? Neither is local. You seems to be putting all non-american countries in the same basket.

Why is that sad exactly?

They want working, reliable software for their users and Amazon can help them provide that. Some decisions are practical not political.

Why did you choose Rawanda over South Africa/Nigeria/Morocco which I would think would be easier African countries to work in

I can't say that we evaluated every country before choosing Rwanda, to be perfectly honest we didn't look at that many, we just decided that Rwanda was 'good enough' and would probably work so we went for it.

The three countries you list are very very different from Rwanda and from each other, so it is hard to comment on that. In many ways South Africa has more in common with California than it does with Rwanda.

I'd be curious to hear more about this decision. I note that it lies somewhere approximately in between the extremes of Kenya/Nigeria/SA on one end and Central African Republic on the other.

As I said we didn't do a super lengthy weighting of countries, you could drive yourself crazy doing that. Rather we saw it was a place where we could move the needle, Kigali is a safe, beautiful and pleasant city to live in and we thought we had a chance of not going totally broke. We didn't spend much time at all weighing against other countries, just decided this seemed like a place that could use more experienced folks and would work out.

Who needs cheese when you have an unlimited supply of matoke?[1]

Have you seen any positive changes in ICT ed from the Carnegie Mellon program[2] that started there?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matoke [2] http://www.cmu.edu/rwanda/

Hah, matoke is most definitely NOT a viable substitute to cheddar!

It is early days still for CMU, they are only just starting their second year, but I think their influence here and in the region will be huge, mostly because there just aren't many (any?) other top tier universities here. Their program isn't straight CS, but it does offer CS courses and the profs are top grade, so the graduates will be head and shoulders above others in the region.

The long term impact of that could be pretty huge.

This is awesome! Grew up abroad and this seems like a great opportunity.

Was it easy to get a work permit / visa for Rwanda?

Rwanda has a classification specifically for technology entrepreneurs. It's a 3-year visa and if you are a qualified software practitioner, I don't foresee you having difficulty getting a permit to start a software company here. They also pride themselves on same-day business registration.


A smart move. How common are those sort of visas in developing countries?

My main concern in this question is that I've heard of a growing concern in East Africa that foreigners are taking jobs/money out of the country instead of investing. From what I've heard, Rwanda sounds perfect, though Kenya has pretty amazing infrastructure too. Kenya is however a lot more dangerous than Rwanda sounds.

I've certainly heard some of that, but I don't think it applies quite as much to tech entrepreneurs -- and I've seen more evidence of that in say, Kenya. If you are coming here to build a software company, I would be surprised if Rwanda's arms weren't opened pretty wide.

At this point, Nairobi has more going on in it's tech scene and certainly a more mature market to sell into, but you are right, it's definitely not as safe and transparent as Kigali.

I don't know how common these sort of visas are the world over, but Chile also has a pretty innovative approach to attracting tech entrepreneurs.


And I assume no trouble renewing at three years, then?

I just renewed mine this week without any trouble, but of course YMMV.

We are both college dropouts, so the first go around took a bit of convincing, but since we had a pretty lengthy work history we convinced them in the end. After that it has been smooth sailing, Rwanda is pretty friendly to foreign investment in general.

I have also lived in weird places (eg. China/Burma border) for extended periods and know exactly what you mean about cheese. We also had matoke equivalents (ie. multiple versions of starchier bananas, almost always tastier than 'normal' bananas).

I notice that the pricing plans don't reward the middle tier as compared to the first tier.....would have expected that middle one to offer savings per SMS sent versus the first tier. My 2 cents feedback. Service looks very useful, congrats!

Ya, that's mostly because we decided to discount the lowest plan for launch, it will 'normally' be $49 in the future, so then things will ramp the way you'd expect.

@nicpottier loved the post would also love to see how can we help k lab from the us? Or help in any of the other local initiatives you are doing to foster a community around tech.

Off track, but I noticed the .in domain that's chosen. Any particular reason to have the India TLD? Or just that it sounds like a phrase "text it in" ...?

We'd love to have the .com, but it's not in the cards. But ya, we chose the India TLD for exactly the reason you suspect.. text it in.

Are you or one of the founders native to Rwanda? What's the electricity situation like? What's the ease of doing business for complete outsiders?

This question might be too broad, but how would you compare the infrastructure, English level, technical talent, etc. of Rwanda with other African nations?

Africa is a huge, huge place, it is hard to even fathom how big and varied it is. East, West, North, South are all really really different. Within East Africa, Rwanda fares well from an infrastructure point of view, lags a bit in English due to being Francophone until recently and on talent, I'd say most are at similar levels. The talent is everywhere, but really the skills are far behind the west pretty much everywhere as well.

What is the biggest challenge your have found starting a software company in Rwanda, and how did you resolve it?

Rwanda is a small market, so while we tried to build a few products for the local market it just wasn't big enough to make the numbers work out. In the end we decided to build a product that had a global reach and in that respect I think there is much more promise.

From a purely administrative point of view it has been very easy and predictable, well, no harder really than the states that is.

What's the electricity situation like? Do you need to have diesel generators?

Power is fine 95% of the time, but yes outages happen though infrequently for long. We work on laptops so it isn't a huge issue, but you do learn to plan around it. (aka, keep said laptop charged)

And the broadband bandwidth and speeds? Is it very pricey to have a 10 Mbps downlink (upto 4Mbps uplink) connection?

That's not really an option at all, at least not to your house. At the kLab we have a 15Mbps line allocated for us, but the realities of oversea (well, undersea) bandwidth purchases means we often don't really see that.

Most people not at kLab get mobile data connections that in good areas when it's working well can get downloads between 200KBs up to 1MBps (those are bytes, not bits) depending on the time of day. Up oftentimes is about the same as down. It's not heavily throttled as you see in many other countries. These data plans are also very cheap.

Really, the biggest problem here isn't so much the speed these days, it's that the connection occasionally just stops working altogether.

Your app is pretty cool. How long did it take to build? How big of a team?

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