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At 27, Clarisse Iribagiza is driving Rwanda's tech industry

By Vision Reporter

Added 15th September 2015 12:49 AM

On September 19, Vision Group will host five young entrepreneurs who will speak at the company’s 6th Pakasa Forum to be held at Kampala Parents School. The forum will use these business leaders’ unique stories to provide insights into mindset change, personal responsibility to success and hard work

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Clarisse Iribagiza

On September 19, Vision Group will host five young entrepreneurs who will speak at the company’s 6th Pakasa Forum to be held at Kampala Parents School. The forum will use these business leaders’ unique stories to provide insights into mindset change, personal responsibility to success and hard work. We continue with the profiles of each of the five panellists. GLORIA NAKAJUBI presents Rwanda’s Clarisse Iribagiza, the CEO and co-founder of HeHe Limited, a leading mobile technology company in Rwanda founded in 2010.

Clarisse Iribagiza is not just a successful businesswoman. She also stands out as one of the new crop of young African women entrepreneurs who have broken several barriers to excel in a field that was once a male domain. Her niche is in Information Technology, where through HeHe Limited, the Rwandan mobile technology research and innovation lab, this young lady has become a leading force in changing the minds and transforming the lives of young people in Africa.

Inspired from childhood

Iribagiza was born on January 28, 1988. “I was raised by a teacher and entrepreneur, who encouraged my siblings and I to be ambitious and pursue meaningful careers. After every school year, mom and dad would ask us what we wanted to do with our lives and this put a lot of pressure on us to always ask ourselves why we were doing whatever we were doing,” she recalls.

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Clarisse Iribagiza says her parents encouraged her to pursue a meaningful career

Her ideas started forming at the University of Rwanda’s College of Science and Technology, where she studied computer engineering. “I started my business at 22 years, when I was a junior in college. It was right after a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) incubation programme, where I was able to connect the dots between what I was learning in school and how I could immediately apply it in the real world,” she recalls.

Apart from opening her eyes to the opportunities in the IT business, her time at MIT emboldened her to think creatively. In 2010, Iribagiza founded HeHe Labs. Here, she has, over the last five years, worked with young,  enthusiastic people to build mobile information systems and invest in research in appropriate mobile technologies for Africa.

HeHe Limited is now leading the mobile technological revolution in Rwanda and beyond, providing life-changing novel solutions for businesses and organisations to reach their audience faster in convenient and affordable ways. “It was a lot of experimenting for us. We tried out so many ideas and at the end of it all, we learned how to build mobile information systems,” she said in an interview in 2013.

HeHe Limited has undertaken many successful ventures. “We’ve built systems that have improved operational efficiency for many organisations across the continent, but our biggest success, so far, was establishing our research arm that has inspired and trained hundreds of Rwandan youth over the past three years to be at the forefront of Africa’s technology revolution,” she said.

The company builds popular IT programmes in enterprise, education and the public sectors. Through Hehe. com, the company enables more than 80 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to interact with their customers in different locations at the same time.

This is made possible by mobile and web-based platforms that have been developed by Irabagiza’s team. HeHe Labs has also designed and implemented an innovative software that enables girls to send in questions on life’s challenges and receive answers in real time on their mobile phones.

In 2011, Iribagiza, together with other young ICT entrepreneurs, launched The iHills, Rwanda’s tech start-up network.  The platform provides mentoring, access to finance and markets for tech start-ups in Rwanda. Within five short years, she has inspired many people in and outside of Rwanda.

She has also won many awards and recognition for her hardwork. In 2012, she was named among the 20 movers and shakers of Africa at the continent’s CEO summit.

In 2013, the Imbuto Foundation, an initiative by the Rwandan First Lady, Jeanette Kagame, to improve the health and welfare of vulnerable people in the country, awarded Iribagiza with its Celebrating Young Rwandan Achievers (CYRWA) Award for her entrepreneurial mind and drive. The award, according to the foundation, “honours outstanding young Rwandans who strive toward the highest levels of personal and professional accomplishment, who excel in their chosen field, devote time and energy to their community in a meaningful way,and forge paths of leadership for all Rwandan youth to follow.” No doubt, Iribagiza fits that description.

In 2014, an Italian think tank, LSDP (Lo Spazio della Politica), named her among their top 100 global thinkers. Forbes magazine recently nominated her among Africa’s most promising young entrepreneurs under 30 for 2015.

Iribagiza also beat 24 top young entrepreneurs from the East African region to the East African entrepreneur reality TV show, Inspire Africa Season one and walked away with $50,000 (about sh180m).

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Iribagiza (circled) with her Inspire Africa Season One team, where she emerged winner

Iribagiza is a busy person. Despite that, she still squeezes some time off her schedule to play the guitar and “come up with a few songs whenever I can.” Time and age though seem to be racing against her. “It is a skill that’s slowly diminishing as I grow older and get busier,” she says.

Her views on business in the region and, especially, opportunities for young people

“The youth today have access to a lot of knowledge and information as a result of the information era that we are in. Technology advancements have also broken down geographical barriers that existed a decade ago. “I see young people in my organisation teaching themselves the latest programming techniques online and collaborating with their colleagues in North America or Europe to launch an application in a neighbouring country, like Uganda or Kenya. I see great opportunities for collaboration across borders to build and scale ideas.”

Challenges

The challenges are vast; from striving to be taken seriously in an industry dominated by western companies, to growing our team to execute the vision that we have under unfavourable conditions, such as an education system that does not encourage much critical thinking. All such challenges have significantly affected our growth,” she says.

Business tips

Entrepreneurs are people who not only take initiative to solve a problem, but go the extra mile of ensuring that theirintervention is relevant and sustainable. This is no easy feat. So, to move forward, do the following:

  • Understand the opportunities vis-à-vis the cost of doing business
  • Stay focused
  • Build the right relationships and team to achieve your goals
  • Work on your leadership skills and put your ego aside.

 Future plans

Iribagiza has already drawn a clear way forward for herself and her team. “At HeHe, we think about the future a lot.  In fact, our slogan is ‘Invent the Future’ and we work towards that each day. When we launched our research arm, its sole purpose was to do applied research to create contextappropriate technologies that fit seamlessly into the African lifestyle.

“Our future plans include creating more global partnerships and reaching more of Africa’s youthful innovators through this programme,” she says.

Pakasa forum is a great opportunity

I am looking forward to sharing what I have learned over the last five years in business and technology, while learning from the rest of the participants in the Forum. Being a part of the Pakasa Forum is also an opportunity to gain greater insights about the opportunities in the region. I am passionate about education and economic empowerment. For me, business is a way to package these burdens and contribute meaningfully to society.

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At 27, Clarisse Iribagiza is driving Rwanda''s tech industry

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