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.
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In the village of Mulindi, just a few miles outside of Kigali, Damascene Bakunzi, a Hutu, says he used to be a cashier of a transport company before the genocide, but has since been forced to sell used clothes at the market.Skip to next paragraph
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He says he studied law and could be a paralegal, but can't get a job because he is a Hutu. "I'm not alone," he says. "There are many like me. Hutus are very angry, but they can't show it."
How one Hutu prospers
Back in Kigali, however, one Hutu at least is doing quite well.
Emmanuel Ngomiraronka is a marketing consultant for the Rwanda Coffee Authority. He holds a doctorate in political economy from Peking University. After teaching English and studying in China, he began to export Rwandan coffee to China to meet the growing demand for coffee there.
Now, he's based in Kigali and partners with a Chinese company that earns 30 percent of the proceeds of the coffee he ships. He says Rwanda is very pro-business and investor-friendly. By way of example, he explains how the Rwandan Development Board allows foreign companies to register, get a business license, insure the firm, and get a taxpayer license – all in one day, at the same place. "It takes three to four days – and stops to different offices – to do the same things in Hong Kong," he says.
"From 1994 to 1999, Rwanda was surviving on emergency foreign aid. Ten years ago, the business environment was not taken seriously," says Ngomiraronka. "Government policies have played a big role in the growing economy. I really believe Rwanda has made big steps."
Pay the electric bill on a cellphone
Text-messaging guru Gasana agrees. Those who use his service to pay for their electricity buy small scratch cards that have a code signifying a prepaid amount. When they enter the code into their cellphones, the electricity is turned on for their house for the period of time they purchased.
This system has created thousands of jobs throughout the country for small-time dealers who sell the cards and earn a 5 percent commission. The system is seen as a model for how developing countries can efficiently provide electricity, and has won the firm five international awards.
Many African countries and companies have approached Gasana about setting up electricity payments via cellphone. Later this year, he'll help Mozambique become the first country outside of Rwanda to make use of his payment system.
Like many of his peers making it big in the new Rwanda, he uses his limited free time to enjoy his disposable income. He likes to go to parties, he says. He also likes to go to national parks in the region that are typically visited mostly by well-heeled Westerners. Tanzania's Serengeti National Park tops them all, he says.
But Gasana says he's not motivated by the perks of wealth as much as the mission of job creation. "I've seen lots of people change their lives," he says, "with the small business they can do by being independent dealers of my SMS products."
Despite his youth – Gasana is not yet 30 – he is the office elder. He wouldn't have it any other way.
"I'm informal in my office. I like to let people feel free. It helps them come up with ideas," he says. Lest anyone get the wrong idea about the work ethic of his young team, however, he adds with a smile: "But we have lots of goals, too."
• Last in a three-part series. Part 1 ran on April 7, Part 2 on April 8.