kLab: A space for innovation in Rwanda

From the spectacular penthouse suite patio of Rwanda’s Telecom House, one can literally watch the capital Kigali marching forward.

Cranes, arching their necks above the nearest hills, work on a brand new convention centre. Steamrollers slowly roll over freshly laid gravel, covering the red earth below. Sounds of clinking hammers and grinding buzz saws emanate from nearby construction projects sprouting up in all directions. Even the Telecom House itself is transforming; it’s being renamed the “ICT Park”.

As Kigali’s physical infrastructure booms outside, inside the seven-story ICT Park, a new and equally essential digital infrastructure is being created. Two months ago the Rwanda Development Board and several local partners unveiled kLab, Kigali’s first open space for IT entrepreneurs to collaborate and innovate.

kLab aims to become a central beacon for Rwanda’s ICT hopes and dreams, a melting pot where creative young talent can nurture innovation and find opportunity. The space oozes with creative and collaborative-centred design. Moveable whiteboards act as window shades. The electricity outlets have built-in adaptors. Chairs were imported from Ikea and the color scheme is a pastel collage.

“We want it to become a focal point for those interested in tech in Rwanda, and a platform for entrepreneurship [in the technology industry],” says one founding team member Eric Newcomer, an American who co-founded Nyaruka, a small software consulting firm in Rwanda.

Rwanda, a small, landlocked and natural-resource poor country, has hedged its bets on becoming a knowledge-based economy. ICT development is a pillar of Vision 2020 – President Kagame’s plan to turn Rwanda into a developed country by 2020. In 2000, the government launched the National ICT Plan (NICI I), to create an enabling environment for ICT initiatives to be implemented over four five-year cycles. By 2010, fibre optic cables spanned the countryside, even in places where tarmac didn’t.

Now, with sufficient infrastructure in place, NICI-3 (the third installment) aims to push forward the ‘participatory phase’ of Rwanda’s ICT development and kLab hopes to be as participatory as it gets – not just with the foosball table.

kLab is targeting young software developers and recent college graduates from computer science/engineering programmes at Kigali Institute of Technology (KIST), National University of Rwanda and other institutions – offering them a place to gain more practical experience, training, and work collaboratively. While Rwanda may be churning out young techies, most lack practical knowledge, skills and experience to build software companies.

Claude K. Migisha – another founding member of kLab who also helped found iHills, a group bringing together young Rwandan professionals running technology companies – says the goal of kLab is threefold. “We want to help young people see their dreams become reality, link them to mentors, and offer training and skills.”

The kLab is a working space for young software developers. Photo: Jonathan Kalan

The idea of an ‘innovation hub’ is not new to Africa. The continent is undergoing a “tech-hub boom”, as Erik Hersman – founder of Nairobi’s iHub, one of the most well known hubs in east Africa – pointed out in a recent BBC article. “There are now more than 50 tech hubs, labs, incubators and accelerators in Africa, covering more than 20 countries. In Nairobi, we have six,” he says.

kLab resembles Nairobi’s iHub in many ways. It’s colourful, enjoys a top-floor breeze and vista, has a coffee bar, foosball table, and an open workspace setting. Yet there is one significant difference: kLab exists because of government support.

The stunning space, along with high-speed internet (apparently the fastest in the country), was donated by the Rwandan Development Board (RDB). Both the RDB and Rwanda’s ICT Chamber play an active role in managing the growth of the space. Other costs, such as renovating and furnishing inside of the space, were funded by JICA, the Japanese development agency.

Does it matter that kLab is a government initiative; unlike most hubs across Africa which were either donor-funded or private sector initiatives? Jean Niyotwagira, one of kLab’s first ‘tenants’, claims it doesn’t. “When government is supporting you, at no cost, it gives you more ways to experiment.”

Niyotwagira graduated from KIST with a degree in computer engineering last year, and has already founded several software companies. In college he worked with a team to create HeHe Ltd, a mobile applications development company. Now he’s working on Twihute, a Rwandan social networking platform, and TorQue, a web-based platform for wholesalers to digitise supply chain management, distribution, and accounting.

“kLab is the most amazing thing that has happened to the programmer community in Rwanda,” he says. “It helps entrepreneurs who don’t have enough funds to start their own office.”

In Rwanda, no industry can escape the far-reaching arms of the state. Yet no one can deny the tremendous economic, social, and infrastructure development the country has experienced as a result. kLab is barely in its infancy, and while the government may be able to build cool new spaces overnight, a community cannot be built the same way. It will take a great deal of cultivation and leadership to transform the kLab into a meaningful entity for Rwanda’s technology sector. That doesn’t, however, downplay its importance.

When it comes to fostering technological innovation in Rwanda, simply the existence of a place like kLab, government funded or not, is a big step in the right direction. “It’s a great space to try and fail,” says Niyotwagira. “That’s what I do here.”