Back in February, we wrote an issue on Investing in the Philippines . Some of the most under-discussed opportunities are in investing in other countries, and based on reader feedback, this was clearly one of the best issues we’ve ever done.
So today, we’re continuing our international series with a special report on Investing in Rwanda 🇷🇼
Now, my African travels have been limited to Morocco. I’ve never been to Sub-Saharan Africa, and I don’t know the first thing about the scene there.
Caleb is also the founder of Tech Safari : A bridge between African tech and the rest of the world. His terrific newsletter is truly the go-to source for all things African tech.
If you’re interested in what’s happening on the world’s largest continent, Caleb and his community are all over it. Before you do anything else, I encourage you to subcribe to Tech Safari .
Let’s go 👇🏽
Table of Contents
Rwanda’s dark past
When you think about Rwanda, what probably comes to mind is the Genocide against the Tutsi.
In one of the worst humanitarian disasters in world history, the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis saw the rapid and brutal murder of over 800,000 people from the Tutsi ethnic groups by Hutu militias.
It ended when the Rwandan Patriotic Front forces, led by Paul Kagame, took back the country. Remember that name for later.
But In the last 30 years, Rwanda has made an incredible turnaround from this horrific humanitarian disaster, and has become one of the most stable and rapidly developing countries in Africa.
In fact, Rwanda’s turnaround has seen it dubbed the Singapore of Africa . And it’s the best place to start our journey on investing in Africa.
Rwanda has a small population of 13 million people , with three main ethnic groups: Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa.
The official languages of Rwanda are Kinyarwanda, Kiswahili, English, and French, but Kinyarwanda is the most widespread. Over half of Rwandan adults speak only Kinyarwanda, while 14% are versed in both Kinyarwanda and English .
Rwanda’s capital Kigali is home to 1.7 million , about 13% of the total population. The rest of the country’s population is spread across rural areas.
Rwanda is actually a tiny country. You can drive from one end to the other in just 6 hours.
However, it is the most densely populated country in Africa (and the 5th most densely populated country in the world.)
Like much of Africa, 65% percent of Rwanda’s population is under the age of 30 .
And after the brutal humanitarian disaster in 1994, the country has been committed to recovering and rebuilding a stronger nation.
It’s come together under the leadership of one man: Paul Kagame.
Kagame is credited with leading Rwanda’s remarkable transformation since the Genocide. He’s brought transformative economic growth, stability, and improvements in education and healthcare.
In Rwanda, Kagame is seen as a visionary leader. To other African nations, Rwanda’s recent progress makes it seem like a model country.
But Kagame’s perception is mixed depending on who you speak to. And often, western rhetoric can forget African realities and their historical context — which is complicated, politically volatile, and riddled with corruption.
Still, Rwanda is East Africa’s gem, with a government and a population working together for better outcomes.
That sense of community, respect and national pride is evident when you’re in Rwanda.
But the best example of it in practice is a tradition called Umuganda.
What is Umuganda?
Rwanda has been voted the cleanest country in Africa, with its capital Kigali dubbed the cleanest city on the planet .
Surprised? It’s all because of a holiday called Umuganda.
Umuganda is a monthly holiday that takes place on the last Saturday of each month. It’s all about mandatory nationwide community work.
Basically, all Rwandans (even expats!) get out onto the street and clean up together for three hours.
And when I say all Rwandans, I mean all of them. Remember Paul Kagame (Rwanda’s President)? Yup, that’s him here, working the fields.
This perfectly embodies the spirit of Rwanda — a country that has come together to push itself forward and see better outcomes.
And this spirit of togetherness means more than just clean streets; it’s helping propel the entire economy.
Rwanda’s economy has grown an astounding 7% each year since 1994. According to Africa Development Bank, Rwanda is Africa’s top-performing economy .
The foundation of Rwanda’s economic growth is its investment in infrastructure. Roads, bridges, airports, and energy and water supply expansion and modernization.
They’ve also invested heavily in developing ICT infrastructure (information and communications), including 2,300 km of fiber-optic cables. This is what has fueled the growth of Rwandan technology companies. (We’ll get to the tech scene a bit later)
Rwanda’s economy is a mix of the usual suspects: gold, coffee and tea. Rwanda is nicknamed the “Land of a Thousand Hills” because of its mountainous landscape. Coffee farming requires hills, so this, in combination with Rwanda’s positioning smack in the middle of the “ Coffee Belt ” makes it the perfect place to grow beans.
Rwanda’s economy is still largely agricultural. Most of the population engaged in subsistence farming and other rural livelihoods. But things are shifting. The country is now seeing the most growth in services, tourism and technology.
Tourism is booming . In 2019 it was the largest source of foreign exchange earnings, and even after Covid it still constitutes 8% of GDP . (To put that in comparison, that’s nearly twice as high as the Philippines, a country that’s world-famous for tourism.)
Rwanda’s investments in MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) have played a huge factor here. It has invested in building conference centers like the Kigali Convention Center, and sponsoring Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain football clubs under its Visit Rwanda campaign .
Gorilla trekking is a popular tourist activity in Rwanda. The Virunga Mountains, which border The Congo, are home to the world’s most majestic and endangered mountain gorillas. Volcanoes National Park has grown in popularity since the release of Virunga , the 2015 true story film produced by Leonardo Di Caprio.
On the east side of Rwanda is Akagera National Park, with all sorts of big game animals. I visited in October last year . And while I didn’t see any gorillas, I did spot a lion, many giraffes, zebras, a rhino and even a few hippos.
But Rwanda knows it can’t rely on tourism and commodities forever. This is why the country is seriously investing in its economic growth.
And this is where we can turn our eyes to Singapore’s playbook.
The Singapore Playbook
Singapore, with a small population, small country size, and (also) very clean streets, is the finance and tech center of Southeast Asia. ( Sorry Hong Kong )
Singapore has come a long way. Fifty years ago, it was a poor country with a small population of around 2 million. The majority of the population lived in overcrowded, low-quality public housing estates. Unemployment was high, and there were few opportunities for economic growth.
Their “economic miracle” has centered around three things:
- Ease of doing business
- Foreign investment
- Emphasizing innovation and technology
Rwanda is following the same exact playbook.
Paul Kagame has openly shared his intention of turning Rwanda into the Singapore of Africa, a stable gateway of technology and trade for the entire continent.
Let’s dive into how Rwanda is becoming Africa’s hub for technology and innovation.
1) Ease of doing business
Guess how long it takes you to set up a business in Rwanda?
6 hours. (Compare that to several weeks in the US!)
Fast enough for you? Well, it’s still not fast enough for the Rwanda Development Board, who is aiming to get that down to 2 hours.
So it’s not surprising that Rwanda ranks 2nd in Africa (and 38th overall) on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Report . (Singapore is #2, and New Zealand is #1)
Rwanda is also positioning itself as a startup launchpad. The best example of this is Zipline.
We talked about Zipline in our most issue on airspace rights . Zipline is a drone company whose objective is to provide every human on the planet with immediate access to critical medical supplies. It’s a US company, but thanks to government incentives, Rwanda is where it started drone design and testing.
In 2016 Zipline piloted blood delivery in Rwanda , signing a deal to build two huge distribution centers in the country. The company has since expanded to Ghana, Nigeria and will eventually test in Japan and the United States.
75% of medical drone deliveries are powered by Zipline which has improved in-hospital maternal fatalities by 88%.
Rwanda Development Board CEO, Clare Akamanzi, wants Rwanda to become a ‘testing ground’ for ideas and innovation.
Bring your innovation or idea, and we shall give you the environment to succeed with you. Once you succeed, go to the bigger markets and scale up there.– Clare Akamanzi
And startups across the country are doing just that.
Payday is another great example.
One of the hardest problems in Africa is receiving cross-border payments. (I’ve experienced that myself, resorting to platforms like Binance to pay employees.)
Payday is a neobank that lets users set up US Dollar and Euro accounts on their phones to receive money. Payday just closed a $3 million seed round led by Moniepoint (Africa’s fastest-growing payments company).
Think of them like Africa’s PayPal, but with plans to offer more banking products outside of just wallets and payments.
2) Encouraging foreign investment
Rwanda has been busy bringing global investment into the country.
Perhaps most noticeable is Norrsken — a non-profit focused on supporting global entrepreneurs, founded by Nilkas Adalberth, the co-founder of Swedish fintech giant Klarna.
Norrsken has set up shop in Rwanda with its Norrsken Kigali House . This 4,400 sq meter space in downtown Kigali has become the hub of Rwanda’s tech ecosystem.
In January 2022, Norrsken announced a $200 million fund for African startups, and they’ve already made investments in two Rwandan companies:
- Viebeg Technology , an AI-powered procurement platform for medical companies, and
- PesaChoice , a fintech that does salary advances for employees.
This is great news! However, despite the push for more investment, Rwanda’s startup funding in 2022 was a paltry $4 million . (That’s just $3.25 per citizen, compared to $4.58 in the Philippines, and $725 in the US!)
And while startups like Payday and Zipline have raised large rounds, we have yet to see a Rwandan founder raise more than a million. Ouch.
I think this can be attributed to the early stage of startups in the country, as well as the tendency for startups to be headquartered in nearby Nairobi, Kenya, where more capital is flowing ($1.1 billion last year)
But the hope is that with all this activity, Rwanda’s founder community will grow, learn from the global startups moving to the country, and build their own great companies here.
3) Boosting local innovation and technology
More good news: The Rwandan Government recently launched the Rwanda Innovation Fund — a $100 million commitment to invest in tech-enabled businesses and train entrepreneurs in the country.
In addition, the Government has invested in accelerators, incubators and communities throughout the country:
- Leapr Labs , a deep tech incubator for applied research, which turns scientists into entrepreneurs and launched back in 2017
- 250 Startups , a 6-month incubator and accelerator hub for startups at the incubation stage.
- Fablab , a laboratory space for hardware and electronics innovators in Rwanda.
- HealthTech Hub , a healthtech accelerator powered by Novartis Foundation.
- Katapult Africa , an AgTech accelerator run by KatapultVC launched in 2021.
- FinTech Hub , a virtual fintech accelerator for Rwandan startups.
- Jasiri , a startup growth accelerator with an impact focus, by Allan Gill Gray Philanthropy.
- Founder Institute , the Silicon Valley Tech Accelerator, which launched in Rwanda in 2022.
- Norrsken Foundation , which launched a Rwandan hub built for 1,000 entrepreneurs (and armed with a $100m fund for Africa)
- Startups Rwanda , who run community events for hundreds of Rwandan founders.
And this goodwill isn’t just from the Government — it also comes from the startup ecosystem.
When I arrived in Rwanda I got connected with Startups Rwanda . Within a few days we had organized a Founder Happy Hour. 70 founders and investors joined us.
While I was in the country, I got to meet a few terrific companies:
Pindo helps businesses engage with their customers through channels like SMS, WhatsApp and Voice. They’re similar to Twilio, but with a twist. Messages are sent in local languages, starting with Kinyarwanda.
With 33% of Africa’s population illiterate , and even more not speaking English, African customers are mostly shut out of digital services. Pindo helps businesses reach those users with local-language messages and AI voice calls.
Pindo is even integrated with Irembo, the Rwanda Government Service Portal used by 76% of Rwandans.
Across Africa, informal markets are king. From the small business on the street to the local lender in the neighborhood. Before banking came along, Africans would save through something called Savings Groups.
These informal, in-person groups pool together their savings, invest them in joint projects, and disburse micro-loans to members.
And while there are now much larger SACCOs (Savings and Credit Cooperative Organizations), smaller-scale savings groups still prevail in regional and rural areas on the continent.
78% of adults in Rwanda use saving groups to manage finances, and half borrow money from those groups.
Exxus brings these Saving Groups online with their platform, called SAVE. It aims to become a bank for these individuals. They work with NGOs like World Vision and have partnered with the Ministry of Finance to distribute their platform.
And their stories to date have been inspiring.
See, African startups don’t create convenience — they solve hard problems. It makes starting a company in Africa far more challenging and meaningful.
Rwanda has a dark past but a bright future. Its goal is to quickly become The Singapore of Africa, and so far it’s working.
The Rwandan government’s competence and goodwill have made it one of the best countries to do business in, and has shown an ability to attract technology and investment.
While Rwanda’s tech ecosystem is early, it has the potential to punch above its weight with a few more years of development.
Rwanda is a testament to what can happen when a whole country rallies behind a common cause. Everyone pitches in, carries the weight, and is responsible for pushing the country further.
It’s the spirit of Umuganda in action ✊🏽
And that’s a wrap!
A big thanks to Caleb Maru for authoring this report.
And another special shout out to Jefferson Rumanyika for his help with this report. Jefferson is a brilliant host, and the Rwanda-based Investment Associate at Caleb’s Proximity Ventures.
What do you think of Rwanda’s potential? Have you visited before? Have you done business there? What country should we explore next?
Join the convo on LinkedIn , where this post already has 700+ likes! 😲
- Neither our ALTS 1 Fund nor Proximity Ventures has any holdings in any companies mentioned in this issue