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Rwanda Inc. Rules In The Land Of A Thousand Cranes

It is one of the most ambitious countries in Africa with a story that Hollywood scriptwriters would have struggled to write. Can a shattered country, scarred by destruction and death, rebuild itself into a hi-tech Singapore of Africa in less than three decades? It won’t be easy, but Rwanda dreams on.

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Celestin Rwabukumba is the fresh-faced father of the Rwanda Stock Exchange. Every morning he breezes into work in Kigali with business in his head and the fragile future of one of Africa’s newest stock exchanges in his hands.

“As a country, the sky is the limit,” he says.

At the age of 39, Rwabukumba must be one of the youngest stock exchange leaders in the world.  Despite his tender years, in business at least, Rwabukumba has every justification to call himself the sage of stock trading in Rwanda. His story is as remarkable as that of the tiny exchange.

Rwabukumba is a survivor of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. He lost most of his family, including his father, who died in the 100 days of madness that claimed more than 800,000 lives. Like many in Rwanda, he is reluctant to dwell on the horrors that visited upon his family and I do not have the heart to ask him.

What is clear is that Rwabukumba fled his country to the United States where he studied at the University of Buffalo, near New York, and earned a degree in economics. He became a stockbroker in New York and worked on Wall Street.

In 2004, came the call from home and Rwabukumba returned to Rwanda to work on a project to set up capital markets. It bore fruit in 2008, when Rwanda set up a rudimentary over-the-counter exchange, with a whiteboard and marker pens that you only see in schools these days.

On January 3, 2011, the Rwanda Stock Exchange was born in the brand new high-rise building that towers over Kigali. The building itself, is a symbol of the triumph of capital over disaster.

“For many Rwandans, like me, it has made us stronger as a nation. We are a resilient people ready to fight for a better future,” says Rwabukumba.

The RSE may be a speck on the African capital landscape, but it is growing in strength. It must be one of the few exchanges on earth where you can list the listings in one short sentence: NMG, a cross listing from Kenya; KCB, a Kenyan bank; Bralirwa, a brewery in Rwanda and the Bank of Kigali.

Trading is growing slowly; the marker pens are still there. The exchange plans to go electronic in December.

Every day the traders, in their bright red jackets, write out trades that it would take merely seconds for other African exchanges to notch up. In 2011, the RSE traded an average of $131,000 a day; in 2013 this has more than doubled to $292,000.

“My dream is for a big telecommunications company, like MTN, to list here. That would bring more capital and confidence to our market here,” Rwabukumba says.

Rwanda appears far from short of confidence as it emerges from the kind of hell that it has taken other countries in Africa decades to recover from. For the last 10 years, a time when the economies of the world struggled, Rwanda’s economy has grown by an average of 8.2%, according to finance minister Claver Gatete.

“This year, we are predicting 7.5% at the very minimum,” says Gatete.

Gatete, a former ambassador to London and head of the National Bank of Rwanda, took the job of guiding his country’s economy in February.  He says the key to success is the country’s stability and its prudent economic policy that has made it the third easiest place to do business in Africa. The country has fast internet and a will to do business. Credit card giant Visa gave Rwanda a vote of confidence by choosing the country for one of its credit card programs.

“We have come a long way, we have reached the bottom, the only way to go up is to make sure we take ownership of the growth of our economy and sustain it,” says Gatete.

You can register a company in Kigali in six hours and move your money in and out freely. Inflation, in the years after the genocide, was as high as 65%, now it is down to single figures.

Rwanda is also pushing forward the East Africa Community, the trading bloc of one of the fastest growing regions in the world. It has helped speed up trade across it by removing cloying weighbridges and bureaucracy; at the same time bringing in ICT to reduce clearing times.

Corruption is low and the country’s president Paul Kagame has built strong institutions in Rwanda to ensure it doesn’t get a foothold. In many ways the erudite and pragmatic Kagame, who talks like a CEO, has worked hard to shape the country into Rwanda Inc. It was he who encouraged many skilled Rwandans to return home and it is he who sees toughness as the only way to run his country. Legend has it that Kagame has appeared in person in government offices to fire corrupt officials.

“I don’t know about that, but he can fire you across the table in a meeting,” chuckles one of the Kigali inner circle.

When Rwanda struggled to sell its low quality coffee, Kagame brought in a team of United States agronomists to work out how the country could turn it into super-premium grade for export. Commodities, including tea and coffee, now make up more than three quarters of export earnings.

The streets of Kigali are clean and without potholes. Every month, Rwandans, including the president, take a few hours out of their day to clean and repair their neighborhood. Crime is also low among a people who appear exceedingly weary of conflict.

This dedication to order and business reflects on the Kigali skyline. The so-called land of a thousand hills is well on the way to becoming the land of a thousand cranes. The capital, once smashed and littered with dead, is rebuilding from the ground floor upwards. I have been traveling to Kigali since 2005 and was heartened to see new hotels, a sign that strong investment is on the way and accommodation prices could soon be on the way down.  I also saw one of the hotels had a lucky red Chinese lantern hanging from the scaffolding.

The rise from the ashes by the economy of Rwanda has been a remarkable story, but there are problems too. There is a lack of skills and the country’s small coffers are likely to struggle to buy all of the resources and equipment needed for a growing economy. Most of Rwanda’s 45 million people crowd onto scarce land and live from subsistence farming.

Maybe the biggest threat to the investor-friendly stability that Rwanda is trying to build comes from outside its borders. In the unstable eastern region of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, insurgents fight a running war. A number of donors cut off aid this year after accusing Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebels in the DRC. Rwanda denies this strongly. Gatete hopes private money will replace lost donor funds.

“Rwanda believes that in order to succeed peace is very, very crucial, that is why, when it comes to the DRC, we are the first to support the peace, and we believe that a solution is a regional solution working with the DRC government,” says Gatete, when asked by FORBES AFRICA about the allegations.

At home, many in Kigali say opposition is discouraged, to say the least. Two Rwandan journalists emerged from prison in August after completing a three-year jail term for what the courts called divisionism, genocide denial, defamation and incitement to violence. The two had written a series of articles critical of the government.

“The whole world is not homogenous. We cannot cut and paste democracy for something to look good. It has to work for us. We do not have the kind of democracy where we have a politician saying one thing and then the next day the opposition goes on the radio to say it is wrong. We have a parliament where all members can give constructive ideas,” says Vincent Karega, Rwanda’s ambassador to South Africa.

There is also the question of who will lead Rwanda when Kagame completes his term in 2017.

For the future, Rwanda is banking on ICT and the services industry. Kagame has studied the Asian Tigers and wants to make Rwanda the Singapore of Africa. The country has invested in hundreds of schools and colleges in an attempt to train a workforce capable of making this dream happen.

Many African countries could take a leaf out of Rwanda’s book when it comes to building an economy. True, Rwanda is a small country where it is easier to carry out sweeping changes among a people who are steeled to suffer for a better future by the violence and upheaval that befell their forebears. Taking that into account, there is no reason why many other African nations could not equally take advantage of the free market forces that Rwanda is unfettering by welcoming investors, fighting corruption and speeding up the internet.

Looking ahead, could there be a problem if the government in Rwanda feels it has lost control of its country to wealthy foreign investors? Unlikely, while this generation of politicians rule the roost.

“We want that,” says Gatete, “We need the private sector to be with us to build our economy… This is inclusive of the economic growth that is touching the lives of everybody and everyone is seeing the benefits of what the government is doing.”

It appears Rwanda Inc. is likely to be open for business for a long time to come.

Entrepreneurs

Why This 48-Year-Old Woman Is Building Ghana’s Biggest Solar Farm

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Chairman of UBI Group Salma Okonkwo. UBI GROUP

For more than a decade, one 48-year-old entrepreneur in Ghana has been quietly building up a multimillion-dollar oil and gas outfit called UBI Group. Salma Okonkwo is a rare woman to head up an energy company in Africa. “I don’t stop when the door is being shut. I find a way to make it work,” Okonkwo told Forbes. “That’s what propelled my success.”

She’s now expanding her reach across Ghana’s energy industry, working on an independent side project that may become the biggest in her career. Okonkwo is building Ghana’s biggest solar farm, called Blue Power Energy, slated to open in March 2019 with 100 megawatts of energy. It’s set to be one of the largest in Africa.

“Most of the multinational companies that come to Ghana don’t put in infrastructure. They operate a system where they invest very little and they take it away. They sell their products and leave,” Okonkwo says. “I’m hoping to provide employment and add to Ghana’s economy.”

Okonkwo grew up in Accra, one of 14 children born to a real estate agent and developer mother and a cattle dealer father. She often visited her grandmother in her family’s ancestral village. She’s a member of the Akan clan, whose women often sell products they make, like sandwiches or smoked fish, to make sure their children are provided for—and that left an indelible mark on Okonkwo. “The women didn’t know how to read and write, but they knew how to make a margin,” Okonkwo says.

After graduating from an all-girls boarding school with little running water, Okonkwo moved to Los Angeles for college at Loyola Marymount University. (Her family was able to pay her tuition.) She graduated in 1994 and briefly worked in California for a food brokerage company. Then oil and gas company Sahara Energy Group recruited her; Okonkwo returned to Accra in 2003 for the job.

Within a few years, Okonkwo realized that the firm could grow by opening up retail gas stations. She presented the idea several times over the years, but each time she was rebuked. Executives told her they wouldn’t change their business plan because it would be too political and would require too much of an investment in infrastructure.

At 36 years old in 2006, Okonkwo decided she’d heard “no” too many times and quit to try it herself, focusing on bringing liquified petroleum gas to the hard-to-reach region of northern Ghana, where many families still rely on burning firewood for energy. Because Okonkwo’s father was from northern Ghana, she knew firsthand how the business could change lives there. “It was just too hard to pass up the opportunity,” Okonkwo recalls. “It looked quite lucrative.”

But Okonkwo hit an early snag when she realized that she didn’t take into account a complicating factor: The North had few storage facilities for the liquified gas. To get it to the remote region, she’d have to build the storage herself, and she was already struggling to secure funding. So Okonkwo pivoted and started trading diesel and petroleum wholesale. A contract to supply fuel to Dallas-based Kosmos Energy came in 2007, followed by one with Hess in 2008. In the early days, she financed the operation by mortgaging some properties that her family and husband had inherited.

A UBI Group retail gas station in Ghana. UBI GROUP.

By 2008, UBI opened its first retail gas station. It soon owned 8 outright and managed another 20 through partnerships. That caught the eye of Singapore-based multinational firm Puma Energy, which had 2017 sales of $15 billion from operations in 49 countries. Puma acquired a 49% stake in two of UBI Group’s subsidiaries (retail gas stations and wholesale fuel distribution) in 2013 for about $150 million.

After the partial acquisition in 2013, Okonkwo says, she started developing her solar company. She estimates the company will spend about $100 million—financed by roughly $30 million in loans—to create 100 megawatts of solar power by early next year. Construction started earlier this summer. The plan is to add another 100 megawatts by the end of 2020.

Despite all the sunshine in Africa, solar power isn’t a prominent energy source on the continent. Most farms are concentrated in South Africa and Kenya. In 2009, Morocco announced plans to build one of the biggest solar farms in the world. The first of the project’s three phases opened in 2016. “I don’t know of another large-scale project like this in Africa that’s led by a woman,” says Arne Jacobson, who has been studying renewable energy with a focus on Africa since 1998 and is now the director of Humboldt State University’s Schatz Energy Research Center. “Power is fairly expensive in countries like Ghana. If they can keep costs low, this is will be a profitable venture.”

The project is also personal for Okonkwo. Half of the solar farm will be located in her father’s village in northern Ghana. The rest will be spread out throughout the North, which is Ghana’s poorest region, according to Unicef. The organization says the area has seen the smallest progress in terms of poverty reduction since the 1990s.

There are so few employment opportunities in the north of Ghana besides farming that most women migrate to Accra looking for work. Many can only find jobs as “kayayo”—working in markets carrying goods for customers, sometimes known as “living shopping baskets.” They live in slums and regularly endure harassment, theft and even rape. Okonkwo, aiming to create a better alternative for some of these women, says Blue Power Energy has already created hundreds of jobs in northern Ghana and that more than 650 will be created upon completion.

Okonkwo’s ultimate goal is to bring cheap energy to northern Ghana through the solar farm, which she hopes will incentivize companies to create lasting jobs there. In the meantime, she is opening a day-care center in Accra for children born to kayayo women, where, as she explains, they can “get educated and hopefully break the cycle.”

“I want to bring support to my people in the north,” Okonkwo says. “Then there will be more Salma’s all over the place.”

 

– Chloe Sorvino

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The Bloodless Battle Against The Malaria

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With Africa having a big share of the global malaria burden, technologists are developing new, cost-effective ways to detect the disease – minus the needle.

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The Nigerian Who Runs His Business On Luck

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Don’t tell Akin Alabi there isn’t enough time in the day to do everything. He just might tell you off.

At 41, he has built multiple businesses and is making money and time for more.

Alabi is the founder of NairaBET, Nigeria’s first and leading sports betting platform, a company he started in 2009 after he identified what he calls “a starving crowd”.

By that, he means a customer base willing and able to pay for services enough for him to make a sizeable profit.

Besides NairaBET, Alabi owns a small football club, has a book-writing business, is into digital marketing, business coaching and seminars, and is also contesting for a seat in parliament in the 2019 Nigerian elections.

The entrepreneur-investor likes to spend his days identifying specific gaps in the market and providing solutions to address them.

READ MORE: Nigeria; Where Football Is Life

Over the years, he has identified many ‘starving crowds’. He found the first one just after completing a diploma in business administration in 2001. At the time, there was a growing desire for Nigerian youth to travel abroad, especially to Canada, in search of greener pastures.

According to data from the Canadian immigration service, as many as 27,625 immigrants from Nigeria were residing in Canada by 2011.

Alabi tried his luck too.

In 2001, after his visa got rejected, he decided to collate his experiences navigating the complicated visa application process and sell that knowledge online to first-time applicants.

“So anything I learned, I created the information pack and I put it online and sold it,”

“I started downloading information tutorials and videos about the Canadian application process. I put all the information together and said some people will be interested in this so let me put it out there for sale. So in January 2003, I launched my first business, which was selling information products, and the first information product was this Canadian visa package,” says Alabi.

The guide was an instant hit. Alabi was selling it at N10,000 ($28) per copy and over 100 copies later, he knew he had struck a gold mine. It was time to find other crowds. Alabi decided to share his experiences making money online through his new startup in another how-to guide, which also found demand. After the success of the two digital products, Alabi decided to register his company at the Nigerian Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC).

“I went there myself and I did everything myself and I was surprised I didn’t need a lawyer. So I created another information product – how to register your business with the CAC without a lawyer in 21 days or less. I put that out and people were buying. So anything I learned, I created the information pack and I put it online and sold it,” says Alabi.

He had stumbled on a booming industry. According to Stratistics MRC, the global e-learning market accounted for $165.21 billion in 2015 and is expected to reach $275.10 billion by 2022 growing at a CAGR of 7.5% during the forecast period. The flexible learning, low cost and easy accessibility of the market bolstered by the increasing proliferation in the internet during the dotcom boom, presented Alabi with a hungry market eager to grab anything offered online.

Akin Alabi. Photo provided.

Alabi’s story is one of organic growth. Setting goals and achieving them is a prominent theme in his new book Small Business, Big Money: How to Start, Grow, and Turn Your Small Business Into a Cash Generating Machine, where he presents a practical guide for startups looking to scale.

“As early as I can remember, I wanted to be rich. I was fixated on wealth because I did not experience wealth growing up. It is something I believe gives you freedom. Freedom to do things you really wanted to do and freedom to impact this world. You can help the less privileged and also give your family the basic comfort of everything they want,” says Alabi. “I know money is not the most important thing in life but it is reasonably close to oxygen in terms of importance.”

After the success of his digital offerings, business began to slow down, but Alabi wanted more growth. He decided he would venture out of Nigeria to the land of milk and honey, in search of that elusive wealth.

“I got to the UK and wanted to work. I looked at the potential of what I could make and after four months, reality dawned on me. I didn’t want to become an illegal immigrant and felt I was better off doing what I was doing in Nigeria. So I said ‘I had something going for me, it might not be big but there was potential’. I said ‘let me go back and make it bigger’. I was not investing in the business so it was time to do it properly.”

But before leaving the UK, a chance encounter with the bookers would lead to the serial entrepreneur’s most lucrative venture yet. His brother called him from London while he was in the town of Milton Keynes to make a bet in an online sports shop for a football game so they could win some money.

“So I played and I made some money and then I played again and I lost and I played again and I won. And I said ‘wow, anybody can do this and people in Nigeria will love it’. So I wrote down on paper, how to make money from football betting. It was just 14 pages and I put it online and I called my friend in Nigeria to help me go and run an advert in the local newspapers,” says Alabi.

He invested N200,000 ($555) in the advert and made N450,000 ($1,248). That demand was going to progress from online content to a new customer base wanting a platform to bet on sports.

READ MORE: Success Is In The Bag For This Entrepreneur

“So those that bought the information product from me started reaching out to me that the website I recommended they should bet on did not work in Nigeria. And I was like ‘wow, you people are actually taking this seriously’. They wanted to place bets from $100 to $750. So I got thinking, these people are actually sending money to me abroad to place bets for them. Isn’t there anyone in Nigeria that has a business like this? And there was no one. So I said to myself ‘I have to create this platform’.”

That was almost a decade ago. He could not afford the software to create the platform at the time, which cost almost $1 million so he used a local developer to create his first platform. Today, NairaBET, a major player in the online sports betting market, has steadily transformed itself from just a football betting platform to a 360-degree sports booking platform covering digital, SMS, apps and retail betting. And, they have a new million-euro software upgrade in place, according to Alabi.

The total value of the global sports betting market is difficult to estimate because of the lack of consistency in how it is regulated in some parts of the world. Betting makes up about 30% to 40% of the global gambling market, which also includes lotteries, casinos, poker and other gaming, according to a report in Reuters.

This has led to challenges regulating the sector in Nigeria with issues arising from double taxation from the Lagos State government. But Alabi is hopeful these issues will be resolved once there is proper legislation of the sector. In the meantime, he is betting on a career in Nigerian politics and the corridors of power.

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