Kigali co-working space offering startups more than just a desk

From Silicon Valley to London, co-working spaces provide small businesses with affordable space and instant networking opportunities. When Jon Stever realised there was no co-working space in Rwanda and normal office rents were too high, he decided to set up The Office in Kigali. The economic consultant spoke to How we made it in Africa’s Dinfin Mulupi via email about The Office, expansion plans and the impact he hopes it will have in Rwanda.

Jon Stever (left), founder of The Office, says there is a persuasive economic argument to sharing an office in Kigali.

Jon Stever (left), founder of The Office, says there is a persuasive economic argument to sharing an office in Kigali.

Explain the inspiration behind the establishment of The Office?

Rwanda is among the top regulatory environments in the world for doing business according to the World Bank, ranking several places ahead of Western European countries such as Belgium, France and Spain. But, when I returned to Rwanda in early 2012 to set up an agro-processing business, I couldn’t find a good physical environment for setting up.

Startups need affordable space and modern facilities. But, even more importantly, entrepreneurs need to be integrated into a collaborative community to expand their network and to develop their ideas. I found myself wishing that Kigali had a funky co-working space like you’d find in Philly, San Francisco, Berlin, London, and practically every major innovation hub. I did some focus groups and surveys amongst my peers to understand the needs of the city and realised there was a huge demand. First, a need for an inspiring and collaborative space that was open and inclusive. Second, there is a persuasive economic argument to sharing an office. As a percentage of income, office space in Kigali is three to 10 times more expensive than it is in the US.

Has the market reaction been positive since its establishment?

The reaction has been overwhelming. Since October 2012 we have bootstrapped our space from a one-room office of about 70 square metres to occupying the top four floors of our building (roughly 800 square metres). We are also excited to announce that in October we will be opening up a second location across town in partnership with a new technology incubator, Think.

Our target market is intentionally diverse. Our community is cultivating serendipity through diversity of membership and experience, so one of our main aims is inclusiveness. Young, old, expat, local, big, small, for-profit, not-for-profit… we currently provide space for technologists, artists, entrepreneurs, freelancers, SMEs, consultants, NGOs and social enterprises from across the world.

Do you offer clients more than just a place to sit and work? Any additional benefits?

The main benefit for our members is the community. In terms of facilities, we provide internet, a cool space, mail collection services and a beautiful conference room. But, it’s the community that makes us who we are. Not only does participation in the community provide access to a much larger network of mentors, peers, service providers and clients, but several of our members directly serve the entrepreneurial community. Educat occupies the first floor of our building and offers bespoke training services to around 100 entrepreneurs. Ejo Partners provides training and matchmaking services to link entrepreneurs with investors. And, most recently we have partnered with the new Think, a Tigo-funded incubator that is training and investing in startups that have the potential to scale across the continent.

In the long term, what do you hope to accomplish through The Office?

We have coined a new phrase to describe spaces like The Office, we are a human particle accelerator. In other words, we are using space to collide people together in search of the building blocks for the advancement of our species. There is a ton of evidence now that increasing face-to-face interaction and encouraging a diversity of people, ideas, and perspectives to cross-pollinate is the key to accelerating innovation. It is no surprise that some of the most innovative and successful companies in the world have employed this model for their office space: Apple, Google, Pixar and Zappos, among others.

Urban planners refer to the ‘social interaction potential’ of a city as a key predictor of its level of innovation. We are a grass-roots movement to accelerate the rate at which people come into contact with new people, new ideas, new perspectives and new ways of doing things. And in so doing we can engender innovation and social evolution across the city. In addition to office space we also provide a venue and an outlet for community activities: art exhibitions, TEDx events, the Rwandan film festival, live story-telling, networking events, roundtables, dinners, lectures, live music, and even salsa dancing lessons!

Every entrepreneur faces ups and downs. How do you keep going in tough times?

I always say that I am the poster child for the benefits of working out of a co-working space like The Office. I receive a lot of support from my peers in the space, and I’m constantly finding inspiration in their work and ideas. I’m lucky to be a part of such an amazing community of people who are going to change this country and the world through hard work, collaboration and love.

My advice to other entrepreneurs would be to surround yourself with awesome people and never stop learning and exploring. The moment you stop viewing yourself as a student, is the moment you stop growing as a person.