A texting entrepreneur embodies spirit of a new Rwanda
Jeff Gasana's goal is to make his award-winning company the leading cellphone-banking service in East Africa.
Jeff Gasana is a man on a texting mission.Skip to next paragraph
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The soft-spoken 20-something tycoon thumbs his sleek cellphone, firing off SMS messages to associates, his deadpan calm belying the ferocity of his drive for success.
His goal is to make SMS Media, the text-messaging firm he co-founded six years ago, the leading cellphone banking service in East Africa, where cellphone-to-cellphone finance is emerging as an enormous business opportunity.
In Rwanda, SMS Media is already an award-winning industry leader in allowing customers to purchase and activate prepaid amounts of electricity via cellphone. A full 40 percent of Rwandans now buy electricity using the company's services.
Mr. Gasana embodies the spirit of a new Rwanda. Just 15 years ago this week, Hutu extremists here began slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus, killing more than 800,000 in less than 100 days, the worst ethnic killing since the Holocaust. The genocide tore apart the country's social fabric and institutions and destroyed its economy; Rwanda survived on emergency food aid until 2000. But the past few years have seen remarkable economic progress – skyrocketing Rwanda from a regional backwater to a can-do hub for technology and trade.
The Singapore of Africa
Now, Rwanda's butter-smooth roads are the envy of Africa, investors are pouring money in, and modern glass office buildings line the hills of the capital, Kigali, helping the country earn its status as the "Singapore of Africa."
But there's a dark side to the success. Few outside the highly educated circles in Kigali are benefiting from the prosperity. More than 80 percent of the population is still getting by on less than $2 a day, struggling as the cost of living leaps. The boom is also the result of a tightly controlled, Tutsi-dominated government that critics say stacks the deck in favor of Tutsis and stifles all dissent.
"Nothing was here [after the genocide] in 1994. The infrastructure was zero," says Mr. Gasana, between a flurry business calls. "Up until 2000, all my friends left the country for the US or Europe, because there was no future for them here. But since 2005, many young Rwandans are coming back to work and start companies. I'm very impressed with the way the country is growing, Investors are coming. Many companies are opening up shop. The government is pushing IT [information technology] a lot. That's good news."
Technology products come in tax free
Rwanda's economy grew at a record 11 percent in 2008, and much of the focus for growth has been on transforming the country from a subsistence economy to a knowledge-based one. The government gives information and communication-technology firms a free location to start their business for the first year. It also sponsors trips for IT businesses and technology exhibitions. Rwanda is also the only country in the region to allow IT products into the country tax-free.
All these moves have helped young techies like Gasana get their start.
Drawn to Rwanda for good jobs
Take Peter Kazibwe. The graphic designer arrived last May to earn six times what he was earning in his native Uganda. "There's a much higher demand for people in my field here," says Mr. Kazibwe.