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Land Of A Thousand Ideas

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The best way to experience Rwanda’s business environment is to take a walk up Kigali’s immaculate central business district (CBD) or down the small shopping streets of Kacyiru.

The ‘land of a thousand hills’, with its sprawling green valleys and vistas, has seen many ups and downs in its history, but this is a nation visibly on the move – more construction cranes the size of skyscrapers, more global hotel brands setting up, and a classy convention center that lights up the night sky in rainbow colors.

Beneath this veneer is a hardworking young population eager to be protagonists of their country’s progress.

At the Union Trade Centre, a popular hub for young coffee-lovers and mall-hoppers in Kigali’s CBD, Mois, an entrepreneur in his mid-20s running a shop selling African bric-a-brac, welcomes you with a smile that makes the afternoon sun pale in comparison.

He points to his gleaming jewelry collection – contemporary pieces made out of what looks like brass, but isn’t.

READ MORE: Heroes In Rwanda’s Sky

Mois makes them himself, out of used padlocks from the scrapyard, and old coins, which he melts and upcycles into jewelry. His creations are in demand in the US and the Netherlands, he says.

A qualified civil engineer, he has more knowledge about alloys and metals than most jewelers.

“I have a proper professional degree,” says the unassuming Rwandan. “But what I do now is my passion, one that makes me money, and helps the co-operatives I work with.”

Mois (Photo by Irankunda Yves Jean Sauveur)

While the country records growth of 8%, it’s this spirit of “not just money, but meaning” that echoes through the contoured landscapes of Kigali.

In the heart of Kacyiru, down KG 5 Avenue, are more examples of small, medium and micro enterprises – one-storied shops that have survived for decades.

From a 71-year-old grandmother who helms a grocery store to the starry-eyed salesgirl selling cheap moccasins, and charming salons, gaming bars, resto-bars and Afro-chic boutiques, the street is a smorgasbord of experiences and a subset of Rwanda’s informal economy.

Off the same street and on to a dirt road, we meet Jacques Nkinzingabo, a “street photographer” sporting dreadlocks and a hat. The red-brick building we meet in has a large exhibition space out at the back by a patch of lawn where Sawa, Nkinzingabo’s adorable German Shepherd pup, is goofing around.

On the studio’s white walls are numerous photographs recording Rwandan life.

Nkinzingabo was born a week before the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, and as a photographer, wants to now portray “new Rwanda” to the world. His visitors are mostly tourists who book on vayando.com, to meet with the country’s skilled entrepreneurs, instead of visiting the standard tourist attractions.

“The image that tourists have of this country is Hotel Rwanda,” says Nkinzingabo, referring to the hit 2004 film on the Rwandan genocide.

“But I want to reframe the country to show where we come from; I want to show them how we live, dress, cook and lead our daily lives.”

READ MORE: Rwanda Inc. Rules In The Land Of A Thousand Cranes

Since signing up with Vayando over two years ago, Nkinzingabo says it has helped him connect with tourists and locals. He makes about $300 a month on average through this partnership.

Scott Wilhelm, Vayando’s co-founder, is an American who has been in Kigali three years now. A social entrepreneur from Chicago, he was a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador until 2006.

With his business partner Jason Seagle, he set up Vayando, “a tool for curious travelers and a marketplace for entrepreneurs”. Rwanda appealed to them for its “stability, security and progressive approach”.

Tourists, mostly from America and Europe, book the experience online, at about $100 per customizable experience, and meet at the Kigali city centre – “by the elevator outside of Nakumatt”.

“We take them to places they wouldn’t go, to neighborhoods within the labyrinth close to town. These are people looking for meaningful experiences,” says Wilhelm.

Jacques Nkinzingabo (Photo by Irankunda Yves Jean Sauveur)

Those like Nkinzingabo are a part of Vayando’s trusted network of entrepreneurs.

“Jacques sets the price and gets 100% of what he asks for. We add 30% for our charges. It’s an alternative revenue stream for entrepreneurs and primarily, a networking opportunity,” says Wilhelm.

“We drive bookings to entrepreneurs… we want them to have a 13th month of income.”

READ MORE: Something To Wine About

A short drive away is the bustling Gisozi, and the assaulting smell of wood and paint – this is the area that sells woodwork, construction materials and hardware.

Irenee Gumyushime (Photo by Irankunda Yves Jean Sauveur)

As you walk up an uneven road, with deep tyre marks in the mud, you pass cows and curious onlookers. This is the rustic route Vayando customers take to meet Irenee Gumyushime, known as ‘Magic Hands’ in these parts.

There are broken pieces of glass and wood shavings on his dusty shop floor. Gumyushime is crafting a bed out of pinewood. He acquired a diploma in civil engineering but chose to be a carpenter.

“They say I touch the wood and it turns to wonder,” beams Gumyushime. He can speak English which is a boon for Vayando’s overseas customers wanting to hear about the 29-year-old entrepreneur’s life.

“This shop mainly caters to expatriates,” he says. “They bring their own ideas and I customize furniture for their spaces. I get to meet international tourists, and make some money on the side. They learn from me; I learn from them.”

Walking back to the city center, more heartening stories unravel along the way, even as Rwanda’s informal economy winds down after a long, productive day.

Entrepreneurs

What Will It Take To Close The Funding Gap For Black Female Founders?

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If you’ve heard the statistics once, you’ve probably heard them a thousand times: Of the nearly $100 billion in venture funding that goes to entrepreneurs in America, less than 3% goes to female founders and just 0.2% goes to black female founders. 

There’s a growing consensus that venture capital’s race problem needs to be fixed.What’s less clear is precisely how to start closing the massive gulf. And at the inaugural Black Women Raise conference in Manhattan on Friday, a gathering of some 80 black female founders, a series of candid conversations laid bare the frustrations around the lack of an obvious path forward. In several raw moments of interchange, however, some answers started to emerge.

Investors “could ask different questions,” Charles Hudson, founder and managing partner of Precursor Ventures, said during a panel conversation with BBG’s Susan Lyne, First Round Capital’s Hayley Barna, and Female Founder’s Fund Sutian Dong. “There are all these questions—‘Well, do you think she can recruit? Do you think she can hire?’—I know what’s behind that question.

It’s ‘Do you think she can get people to work for her because she’s a black woman?’ And people ask these, what on the surface sound like innocent enough legitimate questions about investments, but they’re not innocent. They’re loaded. And you learn a lot by the questions people ask.”

Despite the existence (and, arguably, preponderance) of these loaded questions, Hudson and the others cautioned the entrepreneurs in the room against becoming disillusioned with the traditional venture capital community. Instead, they said, minority founders should prioritize investors who have a track record of investing in entrepreneurs who look like them.

“Vet investors up front. Don’t let them waste your time only to give you a half-ass answer after you spend an hour with them or even two weeks later,” said Barna, who started her venture capital career after successfully cofounding e-commerce darling Birch Box. “Just ask, ‘Is this in your sweet spot?’”

Dong noted that investors should be self-monitoring for where they’re over- and under-indexing, too. “We’ve said we don’t like the ratio of founders in our portfolio. About half are nonwhite, but only two are African-American. So we asked our network who we should be talking to,” she said.

It can be hard, in an open and on-the-record forum, to ask the hard questions about investing in underrepresented founders—much less to receive forthright answers to those questions—but to the credit of the Black Women Raise attendees, no one shied away from speaking about the reality of her experience as a founder of color.

“Everyone talks about the ‘friends and family round.’ I raised $63,000; I am the friends and family round,” quipped Star Cunningham, founder and CEO of health management platform 4D Healthware. But underpinning her self-funding, Cunningham continued, was a lack of capital access. “I have debt, because I had to get it, because no one wanted to give me any money. So what are you, as investors, going to do to look at our companies differently?”

Barna’s reply: Don’t be afraid to talk about your distance traveled. “The same stories about people getting straight A’s from Ivy League schools isn’t what gets us fired up; it’s instead hearing about how someone put themselves through med school from driving an ambulance,” she said. “You might think that you’re not supposed to talk about your life story, but I think it’s an important data point in helping [investors] make the right decision.”

This isn’t to say that a little bit of information and clever storytelling will fix the funding gap for founders of color. Viola Llewellyn, cofounder of African fintech platform Ovamba, pointed out as much, saying that many of the investors she’s come across don’t seem interested in asking the questions that lead to the sorts of decisions Barna is referencing. 

“Here’s the problem: No one gets punished intellectually, emotionally, or financially for saying no to black women or to Africans. You will instead be congratulated if you don’t make the ‘foolish mistake’ of investing in something that doesn’t fit into the preconceived ideas of what success is,” Llewellyn said to Hudson, Lyne, Barna and Dong. 

“At what point do we find a way to tell the story of the fool that said no?” she continued, to applause from the room.

Hudson waited a beat, and responded with empathy.

“There’s a million reasons [for investors] to say no, but until we have more success stories, I think there’s always an easy out for people to say, ‘No one has proven to me that investing in this way and this type of person works out.’ It’s intellectually lazy and it’s wrong,” he said. “You have every right to be angry.”

Angry, yes, but also motivated. Among the clearest takeaways from the conversation is that one of the best ways to change the system is to start from within. In Silicon Valley and Arlan Hamilton parlance, fight pattern-matching with pattern-matching.

“More black women need to control capital, in whatever form that may be,” Dong said. “More black women need to be controlling capital to put that into companies run by black female founders.”

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Masai Ujiri’s dream of harnessing untapped African talent

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The President of Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, on his adoration for Africa as a continent filled with unlimited potential and talent.


The tall man in sport, Masai Ujiri, is a name in professional basketball far beyond the borders of Africa and his native Nigeria.

Born in England but having grown up in Zaria in Africa’s most populous country, Ujiri’s adoration for Africa sees him on the continent often, inspiring the youth.

“Africa is no more afraid. We are not afraid of anybody anymore. The continent is bold. The people are bold,” says Ujiri, when FORBES AFRICA meets him in Johannesburg in November at the Africa Investment Forum in which he participated.

The continent has a special place in his heart.

The President of the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA), also founded Giants of Africa (GOA) in 2003, as a way of harnessing budding, untapped talent.

“As long as I am in a position where I am able to, we have to give the youth a chance. We have to pave a path for them and there is nothing I can’t do. I have to do everything, it is an obligation, I have to be an example for them by creating that pathway,” he says.

Ujiri, who started playing basketball at the age of 13, travels to Africa every August to visit the GOA camps across seven countries on the continent, training young boys and girls to be leaders in both sport and everyday life.

He says he draws inspiration from each and every country in Africa, and the feeling is inexplicable.

The history and culture are a constant reminder of his years growing up in Africa.

Whether it is in Kenya, where his mother was born, or the lasting friendships in Rwanda, Senegal or Nigeria, each country holds special memories.

Apart from the numerous trips in and out of the continent, 2018 granted Ujiri a rare once-in-a-lifetime moment.

This was in July when Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, visited Kenya, and with him, Ujiri opened a basketball court in the country.

Ujiri’s outreach program GOA launched it at the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resources and Vocational Centre in Alego; familiar ground for both leaders.

Managed by Auma Obama, Sauti Kuu, much like GOA, is focused on youth development.

“To spend that time with somebody that Africa means so much to, meant so much to me and so much to Auma. We are trying to inspire youth, we built a court that is going to impact the youth and that was special,” says Ujiri. 

Being able to scout African talent is what is imperative for Ujiri, and it all comes down to building facilities to help the youth play basketball.

Ultimately, his dream for Africa is not only to see material wealth but for talent to go beyond what he has achieved.

“My dream is to have one of the youth become bigger than me, and bigger than everybody. People think I always dream of building this and doing that but I want one of these kids to take everything that they learn and do better in each and everything.

“I love the continent; I love the culture of different places. I am almost like Anthony Bourdain [the late American celebrity chef], that is how it really is with basketball, with the culture, the people and the food,” says Ujiri.

Staying true to his African roots, when we meet him, Ujiri speaks about his favorite yam and stew dish that he says reminds him of his childhood.

It’s such memories that see him taking the long-haul flight out of Toronto to Africa each year.

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Brewing Success: Lessons From A Beer Baron

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Canadian John Sleeman shares his entrepreneurial lessons with Africa.


cis not your typical textbook entrepreneur. His belief in what it takes to be an entrepreneur is so controversial that his advice is no longer welcome in MBA classes. The white-haired charismatic brewer, who re-established his family’s brewing business in 1988 as one of the most successful in Canada, offers sage advice to African entrepreneurs, although he has no plans to expand in Africa – yet.

Nonchalantly, in his automated beer manufacturing plant in Guelph, Canada, surrounded by people enjoying his craft beer, Sleeman says he believes entrepreneurs are born, not made. He argues that unless you are prepared to go bankrupt, work over 80 hours a week, lose your friends, face the prospect of divorce, put your house on mortgage and miss meeting friends for drinks on Fridays, then entrepreneurship is not for you.

He should know. This is the toll he took to restart his family business. It had lost its licence and was banned from the market for 50 years in 1933. This was for smuggling beer during the roaring 1920s by brokering deals with bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone when prohibition set in in Canada.

Passionately, the beer baron, who plans to open a micro-distillery later this year, and is considering expanding his business in either the eastern or western parts of Canada, tells FORBES AFRICA: “If you want to be an entrepreneur, be very focused on what you want to achieve and don’t let people talk you out of it. If it is a dream, pursue it until you are successful.”

He attributes his success to surrounding himself with the right people. They will make or break your business, says Sleeman. You should be ready to change your business model if the current one isn’t working, he adds.

In his own case, he did this after his colleague advised him that rather than opening up new breweries across Canada, he should buy existing ones that share Sleeman Breweries’ crazy passion for beer and authenticity.

Sleeman reckons you shouldn’t grow so big that you lose your entrepreneurial flair, first-mover advantage and risk-appetite, but you also shouldn’t remain so small that you get knocked out of business or get bought out by someone who does not see your vision and wants to dismantle you, as it almost happened to his business in 2006. If you do sell, reminisces Sleeman, sell to someone who sees your vision, like Sleeman Breweries did, when Japanese company Sapporo saved the Guelph-based firm from a hostile takeover.

But that’s history. Since then, Sapporo has helped fund research and development and training for the business, whose humble, down-to-earth founder is now taking it on its next spirited journey.

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