Meet the Rwandan startups turning Kigali into a tech hub

Rwanda is probably not what you'd think of as top contender in Africa's tech scene. It's small, landlocked and has a troubled past. The population is also small, just topping 12 million, which is less than greater New York City and, on average, salaries are $700 a year. But none of that is stopping Kigali's startups from pushing ahead in a big way. 

Rwanda's tech industry owes a lot to the country's government, which is investing heavily in creating a knowledge-based economy. As such, over 4,500 kilometers of fiberoptic cable have been laid and cell service is ubiquitous even in the countryside. In fact, Rwandan's are far more likely to have mobile service than they are to have working electricity in their homes. The government has even set up a $100 million venture fund. The goal is to create over 100 tech companies valued at $50 million by 2030. The tech scene is so hot that a local version of Shark Tank called 'Face the Gorillas' is on the air.  

So, what are they up to? Here are 5 startups helping turn Kigali into the tech hub of Sub-Saharan Africa. 

 

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Rwanda Online

Irembo is Rwanda’s answer to the nightmare of an American DMV office. Created by Kigali-based Rwanda Online, Irembo is an e-government platform that allows Rwandans to access over 49 government services from nine different government agencies online. Instead of waiting dejectedly on a folding chair under fluorescent lights, Rwandans can apply online for anything from a building permit to a drivers license. The system is understandably popular and the company says that they process over 100,000 transactions a month. 

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SafeMotos

SafeMotos is an Uber-like service for motorcycle taxis, with a heavy focus on safety. The company uses sensors in drivers’ smartphones that measure deceleration and speed data. They then use an algorithm to separate the safe drivers from the insane, only pairing their customers with the former. Just like Uber, users can hail a motorcycle-taxi from anywhere with their smartphone. There are additional features as well, such as the ability for female passengers to request female drivers and the ability for businesses to subsidize rides for customers. SafeMotos has arranged more than 20,000 trips in Kigali since it launched in 2015.

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Academic Bridge

Academic Bridge is a teacher's dream and a naughty kid’s nightmare. The company’s information management platform gives teachers and parents an easy and efficient way to communicate online. The platform provides an online space for teachers to upload grades, attendance records, and even disciplinary notes. In a country where over 40 percent of the population is under the age of 14, the adults can use any help they can get. 

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AC Group

The AC Group pioneered the use of a Tap&Go cashless payment system for public transportation in Rwanda. The system works similarly to London’s Oyster system — users top up their cards and can simply tap them at turnstiles to pay for their trip. While millions of people are swiping (and reswiping) their MetroCards on turnstiles in New York, people in Kigali can simply tap their cards and hop on. The system was recently adopted in Cameroon as well. 

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Mergims

Mergims is shaking up how the African diaspora sends money back to the continent. Unlike other platforms, Mergims links people who want to send money home directly to vendors. So, if you'd like to send money for a family member's schooling, you can now send it directly to the school instead of trusting it with an intermediary. The same holds true for things like electricity bills, cellphone service, hospital bills or even groceries. Remittances are big business in Sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for over $33 billion a year, yet the region is one of the most expensive in the world to send money to, with average service charges eating around 9.8 percent of that. Mergims charges as low as 5 percent. 

Images via companies featured.