Start-up: HeHe Labs
Clarisse Iribagiza, 27, is co-founder and CEO of Rwandan mobile development firm, HeHe Labs. Based in Kigali, the company builds mobile solutions that enable organisations to enhance their operations and reach customers conveniently and affordably. In 2012 Iribagiza emerged winner in the East African entrepreneur reality TV show ‘Inspire Africa’, walking away with a $50,000 prize. Iribagiza tells How we made it in Africa the lessons she has learnt, and why her company focuses on small businesses. Below are edited excerpts.
1. Tell us about your company.
I co-founded Hehe five years ago while I was studying computer engineering and information technology at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology. We focus on building mobile information systems that enable small businesses in Africa to enhance and optimise their operations. We have worked with clients in varied sectors and built mobile technologies linking them to their customers.
In Uganda, for instance, we work with SafeBoda, a company that provides safe and secure moto-taxi services. We are also currently working with a Rwandan start-up that is selling non-explosive cooking gas. We are building solutions that will enable customers to order gas directly from their mobile phones thus eliminating inefficiencies involved in operating physical gas station outlets countrywide.
So ideally we work with any organisation looking to reach large audiences that have access to mobile phones and are mostly based in remote areas. We are focused on small businesses because they are the backbone of our economy providing lots of jobs thus solving local problems. But they face many challenges such as high cost of production, lack of access to energy and poor infrastructure. Technology can help reduce their costs and enable them to operate more efficiently. Although we have been in existence for five years we see ourselves as a start-up in that we are constantly innovating and churning out new ideas and new products.
2. How would you describe the tech scene in Rwanda?
It is a great place if you want to experiment. The market size is small, the infrastructure is fairly good, we have fast internet connections and it is easy to start a business here. I think it is a good stepping stone for a company hoping to expand across the continent.
3. How did you finance your start-up?
We have bootstrapped and the company has grown organically. But getting started cost us pretty much nothing. We registered the business with just $30 from the little savings my colleagues and I had. After that we went out to look for clients, and about a month later we signed up our first customer.
4. If you were given US$1m to invest in your company now, where would it go?
Do you have a million dollars? The first place we would invest that money is in product development. We have been looking to change our business model for the mobile information system (MIS) that we offer. We would like to make it more cloud-based and lower the costs that it takes for us to build the system in order for us to meet more of our clients’ needs.
Second, I would look at going into new markets. We have only done work in East Africa, but I would like us to go beyond the region.
Third, I would invest in the research and training programme we have been running for the last two years. The focus of the programme has been to build capacity because we felt there was a gap in the education sector. We’ve run it in eight universities and high schools across Rwanda. We would like to expand that programme because it is a breeding ground for new ideas and products. We have grown a couple of ventures out of it.
5. What risks does your business face?
Most of it is around the cost and changes in technology. If I look back five years ago and what we do now, we have had to iterate what we do so many times. We have had to make changes in the programming language, the platforms and technologies which are constantly evolving. So our team has to always be up to date, but sometimes it has not been easy to do – especially when we can’t hire quickly enough or find people with the right skills to help us grow. This is actually why we decided to start the research and training programme so we could create the talent we need at Hehe.
6. Describe your most exciting entrepreneurial moment.
It is that feeling of having given birth, if I may describe it that way. When we started our research and training programme we were trying to expand our reach. We have seen young people come into our offices with very little knowledge, and many of them are now running their own start-ups. I find that very fulfilling and inspiring.
7. Tell us about your biggest mistake and what you’ve learnt from it?
My biggest mistake was in how I picked my start-up team. I was too quick to commit and did not take time to really see if the rest of the team was in it for the long haul and had the skills and dedication that we needed to actually build a start-up. In the book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t by Jim Collins, the author states that it is first ‘who’, then ‘what’. That has been my biggest lesson.
It is about who you are starting something with – then you figure out the product along the way. We can always make changes and tweak the product, but should have a dedicated team committed to growth from the starting point.
I have learnt also that it is important to surround yourself with people who want to see you succeed. You need people that push you, challenge you and keep you grounded. I have had seasons when people around me were pessimistic and it would have an effect on the business.
And there have also been times when we have had optimistic people around us and it had a positive impact. So your environment is really important. Resilience is also key. We have failed so many times, but we have learnt to not stay down for too long.