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The Making Of A 21-Year-Old Rwandan CEO

Published 4 months ago
By Forbes Africa
Photos by Ridhima Shukla

BY RIDHIMA SHUKLA

Yussouf Ntwali’s edtech company has grown from idea to impact, changing the recruitment landscape in Rwanda.

IN THE BEATING HEART of the impeccably-green city of Kigali, in one of the most sought-after commercial zones, past a small gate and a garden is a shared space for home-grown Rwandan startups.

Entering the first building, a double- storied structure marked BAG, a white board reads ‘Training, Problem Solving, IoT and Education’.

Inside, there are more white boards in the middle of a large room, which looks like a cross between a classroom and a workplace, buzzing with youthful energy and the start of something bright and new.

Across the foyer is the office of Yussouf Ntwali, the 21-year-old CEO of BAG Innovation, an edtech company into innovation and social impact, one of Rwanda’s most popular tech companies today.

Since its inception, the company has grown from an idea to a real impact firm. Ntwali, who started out as a curious 17-year-old volunteer, climbed the ranks to becoming the Chief Operations Officer (COO) and now the CEO.

With no university degree or background in technology, Ntwali’s badge is his unwavering enthusiasm and unapologetic approach to learning on the job, which he reiterates during our interview.

Now resident in Rwanda, he spent his early years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, born to a Rwandan father and a Congolese mother.

After spending his formative years in

Lubumbashi with his parents and three siblings, Ntwali moved back to Rwanda in 2007. Accustomed to the Congolese school curriculum, he was bilingual and spoke Swahili and French. To his surprise, Rwanda favored English.

“I spent the first few years in Rwanda without studying Kinyarwanda or English. But, around the age of 10, I began to pick it up.”

An extrovert brimming with confidence and with a penchant for conversation, Ntwali picked up the two languages quickly.

“I always like the challenge of learning new things, even as a child, I pursued everything with the same passion,” he says.

Apart from his professional zeal, he loved rap music, and for a while, even thought he was going to become the next Jay-Z. Ntwali spent a few years focused on music and was selected for a national competition in Rwanda.

But when it came to academics, he couldn’t be tied down to the conventional.

After high school, he instead opted to attend workshops and training sessions in business management and entrepreneurship.

Instead of going to university like most of his classmates, Ntwali made music, also working as an assistant manager at his father’s chain of barber shops. This is where he first faced the day-to-day challenges of running a business and realized the gaps in his own skill- sets as well as in others.

After months on the job, thanks to his brother – another entrepreneur in the family – he was motivated to attend
an entrepreneurship event in Kigali unaware of the several early stage creative startups he was about to encounter.

Ntwali was 17 when he met the founder of BAG Innovation, Gabriel Ekman.

“He spoke about the lack of skilled youth in Rwanda and the gaps in training. How most students had degrees but did not know how to use them. Employers had employees that did not perform and I thought ‘yes! I have seen this’!”

Intrigued and excited by the social impact model illustrated by Ekman, Ntwali approached him to find out more and the two instantly connected on their shared energy and desire to solve problems.

Ntwali joined Ekman in his tiny workspace with a laptop and began to work on improving the recruitment, training and selection ecosystem of Rwanda.

Making use of simple tools like Facebook and interpersonal skills, the two would approach small companies in the country to learn about their challenges. After acquiring a fair understanding of the challenge, the two would brainstorm on solutions, but not alone.

“If a coffee shop told us they struggled with pushing higher sales, we would advertise to students on Facebook to solve the problem for the shop, to sell more coffee.”

Once they had worked out the solutions together, the group would offer them to the coffee shop. This was a social impact exercise that built the foundation of BAG Innovation.

After a few successful attempts, the two began training the students with the best solutions and preparing them for various job scenarios. By connecting the students with the shops/companies, they would not only offer solutions but a pipeline of potential employees.

This led to companies coming forth and asking to employ the students trained and acquired by BAG Innovation.

“When we noticed that our services were gaining demand, we sat down to chart a monetize-able model for our business.”

Ntwali joined the company in 2018, by which time, the company had reeled in many contracts and was able to pay off bills and expand operations.

When asked what differentiates them from a HR firm, he says: “We complement each other. We are not looking for the right candidate for you; we are creating the right candidate for a job. We are working with the same social impact model but one that is scalable, sustainable and profitable.”

Even though BAG Innovation makes its money from companies that hire talent through them on
a per-person basis, its blended model of offline and online interactions for tackling specific challenges within a firm and the ability to offer a range of employee portfolios to choose from is their differentiator, they say.

“Those who do not perform in our trainings, we offer them further programs to learn from and improve while keeping them out of our talent pool, until they match the required standard.”

Ntwali’s ability to pitch his company’s unique model, ideas and potential to others has won him a few cash grants.

From the African Union startup challenge to the Hanga Pitchfest, he is now a name in the startup community.

“We have used the money from these competitions and grants to scale up operations and improve our marketing and sales team.”

As the non-technical founders of a tech company, a lot of BAG Innovation’s funds have gone towards outsourcing their IT services.

Just last year, they hired an engineer to lead tech and a full marketing-sales team to support the founders in bringing more clients.

“I always function like a COO – I like to work closely with the team and know everything that happens in the company, that’s how I learned and grew.”

Ntwali has a spring in his step as he walks around the office, saying hello to his colleagues and stepping out the main door to stop and stand next to the sign, Bag, beaming with pride.

As a 21-year-old business head, he has enough reason to smile.

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