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Impressions from the Learning Journey Digital Rwanda 2023

In early summer 2023, the founder and CEO of OBJENTIS, Roland Tscheinig, took part in the Learning Journey Digital Rwanda organised by NextAfrica/ECOTEC. In the following interview, he shares his impressions of this journey.

Where exactly did the journey take you?

Roland: The Learning Journey itself led to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and to two suburbs. Afterwards, I traveled privately to the north of the country.

What was the objective of this Learning Journey?

Roland: Europe and Africa actually know far too little about each other. Africa is developing very quickly, a lot is happening, especially in the digital sector, and there are many different ways for companies to get involved in Africa. In Europe, however, the old perception of an underdeveloped Africa still prevails, and many developments there have been overlooked. The Learning Journey is about “updating” this perception and exchanging knowledge. But it is also about the appeal: You can do something entrepreneurial in Africa and especially in Rwanda there are many opportunities, particularly in the digital sector. The trip wants to be an inspiration for what cooperation between European and African companies can look like, but also a wake-up call that Europe doesn’t end up overlooking development in Africa and in turn missing out on new ideas and innovation.

Some general words about Rwanda?

Roland: Rwanda is located in East-Central Africa and has over 13 million inhabitants in an area the size of about one third of Austria, so the population density is relatively high. The country is seen by some as the (future) Singapore of Africa, a pioneering country where new ideas can be tried out. Since there are comparatively few mineral resources, the Rwandan state is trying to invest heavily in digital technologies and renewable energies. In Rwanda, you can start a company within a few hours. Whether IT, telecommunications, solar energy, drones, e-mobility or e-banking, there are opportunities in a wide variety of fields.

An interesting aspect is that in addition to the areas of IT and sustainability, there is also a big focus on the topic of equal rights for women. The percentage of female workers in parliament and civil services is around 85%, placing Rwanda tops worldwide in terms of female labor market participation in these categories – a fact that not many people get to know.

Of course, there was also a very controversial discussion in our Learning Journey group: Despite all these positive developments, Rwanda is still an autocratically governed state with limited freedom of the press, human rights violations and suppression of the opposition – improvements are carried out “top-down”. The question was to what extent it is necessary in such a very traditional society – especially following the genocide and its deep social rifts – to implement changes via “strong hand” from above followed by “subsequent democracy”, or is democracy, as we understand it, an indispensable basic requirement and only then can everything else follow? Would the positive developments so far have been possible at all in such a short time frame – especially with regard to coming to terms with the genocide, but also, for example, with regard to equal rights for women -, while also not disregarding the negative effects of an autocracy? The group did not come to a conclusive opinion on this question.

You visited many companies and start-ups, which business model did you find most interesting?

Roland: We visited so many interesting companies that it would be difficult to choose a single one. Instead I would like to give two examples.

There is the company named Biomassters ( The business model is very simple in itself: In Rwanda, cooking is traditionally done with coal stoves. However, there are two major problems. First, coal is expensive and second, it is energy inefficient and pollutes the environment a lot. It is estimated that traditional cooking contributes to 40% of the air pollution in Rwanda. Biomassters imports very energy-efficient pellet stoves while using wood waste from other industries for the pellets. Thanks to the use of a leasing model, the stoves are made affordable for the Rwandan population. The use of wood waste helps to build a circular economy due to the pellets being much cheaper to buy. Another benefit is that burning pellets is much more environmentally friendly than coal.

© by Angelika Kiessling

Another example would be the company Irembo (a company in which the state has a stake). The Rwandan state is investing heavily in the IT sector and has set itself the goal of offering digital communication between the state and its citizens that is available to all. The problem in Rwanda, however, is that a considerable part of the population does not yet have access to the internet or IT devices such as smartphones, PCs or printers. The company Irembo, which operates the digital services between the state and citizens, therefore commissions licensed agents throughout the country to carry out these services for others, e.g. to apply for and print out birth certificates electronically.

© by Angelika Kiessling

Both examples clearly show what is true for many business models in Africa: with innovations that may often seem unusual to us, a great deal of impact can be achieved.

Who or what impressed you the most on your journey?

Roland: Actually, the people I met there impressed me the most. In 1994, a genocide took place in Rwanda in which it is estimated that between half a million and a million people were murdered within a few months, mainly members of the Tutsi minority, but also Hutu who did not want to take part in the genocide. Despite this severe traumatization and the extreme division of society, the country is very actively trying to come to terms with what happened and to reunite the people. Especially the young people I met radiate great optimism that this will succeed. As an example of this attitude, I would like to mention a young man who told his story for our Learning Journey group. He himself was only one year old at the time of the genocide. One would think that such a young person, who at least did not consciously experience the genocide at the time, would have little interest in coming to terms with it. However, this man has created the initiative “Our Past” to support reconciliation between the population groups as well as to prevent denial of what happened. I was so impressed by this that I spontaneously pledged a large donation to his initiative. As already mentioned, I actually noticed this committed “spirit” in all the young people there. Besides coming to terms with the past, they have a firm belief that their country can become a model country through initiative, achievement and technology. You generally sense that people want to change something and have the will to do so.

Were there things that surprised you?

Roland: All citizens have to work 4 hours per month for the community, e.g. maintaining infrastructure, sweeping roads, helping to build houses, etc., i.e. they have to perform a service for society. Allegedly you cannot bribe yourself out of this commitment.

You also met with a contractor from OBJENTIS during your stay, right?

Roland: Yes, of course I met with Faustin. Faustin has already been working – via the company “Code of Africa” – in our development team for our AI-based automation for one and a half years. Even though the collaboration has only been remote so far, Faustin has become a very valued and well-integrated colleague in the team.

Finally, what did you take away for yourself?

Roland: It was not my first visit to Africa. This time there was not “that one” new insight, but the impression I had before was reinforced: Presumably many Europeans assume that countries that are economically advanced would have the right to show other countries what to do in order to move forward – i.e. the “Headteacher” idea. When you talk to people in a country that is not yet economically advanced by our standards, you realize that the things that work for us are difficult to apply one-to-one. An idea like using an agent to cover the final last mile between the state and citizens without internet access would probably not occur to a European. In fact, we should think the other way around and ask ourselves what might be applicable here. The fact that you can transfer money between private individuals via SMS, for example, was not invented in Africa, but it is standard in some countries there. In Europe, however, this has not yet made any noticeable impact.

There are situations where you realize that thinking patterns that are used to solve problems often do not work in different environments. Improvising and questioning how things can really be handled in a practical way is something you can take with you. Business between Europe and Africa is not a one-way street, it goes both ways.

A video report of the Learning Journey can be found at .

The interview was conducted on July 31, 2023 and transcribed by Sabine Stortenbeek.

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