In the eighth interview of our "The Leaders of Tech4Good" blog series, we are talking with Henri Nyakarundi, the founder of ARED and the promoter of Tech4Good in Africa. Henri says, "Tech4Good is not just the future — it's a must and a necessity, and there is no other way around."
Who is Henri Nyakarundi?
Henri Nyakarundi is a well-respected entrepreneur, businessman, social strategist, speaker, and the representative of the Tech4Good movement. Henri is a founder of ARED and the author of the book "My African Dream: One Man's Journey Back Home", in which he shares his personal experience of living in the West and moving back to his homeland.
In this interview, we are talking about his life and challenges on his way, the reality of living abroad, his mission, business, and the significance of "belonging". Henri's success story is extraordinary, but the values he promotes and cultivates are pretty known and universal.
Could you please tell our readers more about yourself and about what you do?
Sure. I was born in Kenya and grew up in Burundi as a refugee till the war ended in Rwanda in 1994. In 1996, I moved to the US to study Computer Science. I spent 17 years in America, but I realized that a 9-5 job is not for me and my calling lies in entrepreneurship. I dedicated the next ten years to developing business in the trucking and construction spheres.
Also, I've always been concerned with green sector development and sustainability. I founded ARED and in 2013, moved back to Rwanda. Currently, I deal with entrepreneurship, sustainability, technology impact, and economic challenges that Africa faces today.
That's very interesting, thank you! And you said that you moved back to Africa after spending 17 years in the US. Many people who move to the US set some expectations about their career, about the so-called American dream and decide to take up permanent residence there. And not so many of them decide to move back. What motivated you to move back to Africa?
You know, when I got there, I realized that America was very different from what I had envisioned. First of all, I didn't know that there were poor people and there was crime in America. I thought everybody had money there, but it was the country with the hardest ecosystem I have ever lived in.
America is also a very unforgiving country, compared to Africa, which is very community-based. US society is very individualistic. So, living there was very challenging. At the same time, however, it taught me a lot. It taught me to be independent, it taught me to be responsible. But as I said, I spent 17 years in America, and soon I felt like I reached a ceiling. I felt like there was nothing else there for me to prove.
I moved back to Rwanda in 2013, but between 2008 and 2013, I was going on vacation to East Africa every year. I started seeing the changes happening on the continent. Africa was changing, laws were changing. Entrepreneurship was becoming the way to go, so entrepreneurs had a policy in place they were looking for.
There also were a lot of marketing campaigns aimed to bring back diaspora. So I thought that I'd have more value coming back and more opportunities to do something great on the continent than in the States. And that's really what the premise for me was. Making money was no longer my focus, I wanted something more — I wanted to have an impact.
I wanted to impact people's lives. And Africa was the perfect place — it's an ecosystem that I'm from, even though I've been gone for so long. Of course, I had to retrain and reprogram myself, but I felt very strongly that this would be my next journey, and it's the best decision I've made.
Sounds really inspiring! Indeed, we shouldn't run away from our problems, we should help change our country for the better. By the way, what was your first experience with the Tech4Good movement? How did you come to the idea that helping others is a part of your mission?
You know, I'm a very practical person. I don't think too deep about certain things. I just always follow my heart and stay practical about it. For a long time, I thought that making money is what makes me happy (just like most young people tend to think). Because of such a vision, I almost became a slave to money.
My trucking company was successful, but I was just not enjoying myself. Moreover, at that time, my little daughter was complaining that she had no chance to spend enough time with her daddy. So I had to sit down and ask myself what life is about. Is it just about focusing on myself and accumulating money? And what's next? And I realized there was something wrong with that strategy.
I realized that life is not just about making money but also about empowering someone else, empowering your community. When you become mature, it's no longer about yourself. It's also about others. If you truly want to fulfill your life, you need to do something for others, not just for yourself. This is how this natural decision has become my new focus.
When you become mature, it's no longer about yourself. It's also about others. If you truly want to fulfill your life, you need to do something for others, not just for yourself.
I should note that by listening to stories like yours, our audience will get a better understanding of how to start making a change in their communities! Please, tell our readers more about your project.
ARED is a Tech4Good company based in Rwanda. It is a HARD TECH as Service Company (HASS). As for now, we've been in business for seven years. We develop what we call a multi-service digital-edge platform to bridge the digital gap and the energy gap in low-income areas, rural areas, refugee camps. For those who don't know Africa, it's a very fragmented market, both on the micro and macro level. Even in refugee camps, people have to walk miles to get access to basic services. So helping others — this is what the premise of the company is.
We develop two products: Solar Kiost Platform and Mini Server Platform to allow users to access connectivity via Wi-Fi on our Kiost, make use of phone charging services and digital services — all in one. We also have economic empowerment: we work with women and people with disabilities. Also, we cooperate with NGOs and telecom companies, and we provide the technology to them. We advise them on how to implement this micro infrastructure across different areas.
At the same time, we are for-profit, and we spend a lot of time developing a very innovative business model — we call it a modular business model. We've built partnerships along our whole supply chain: from product development research and development software to Kiost's development design and so forth. So, the core of our team is very small, but we work with different partners around the area to implement and develop the tech.
That's great, thanks for the answer! And moving to one of your global aims of reducing the poverty rate. Please, name some major consequences of poverty you witness in Africa and explain how technology helps to solve them.
The consequences of poverty are the same around the world. As I said, in our space ARED, we deal with energy and connectivity. There is a huge gap between these two aspects. When I talk about connectivity, it's not just about the Internet. It's about access to digital services, access to digital applications that can bring value.
And the same gap is seen between the middle class and the lower class. If you look at the statistics in Africa, you'll find out that 70% of the population still live in rural areas. The lack of electricity in those communities is around 80%. There's been a study by the UN and other organizations showing that bringing connectivity increases those communities' GDP because of the access to information. Let's take farmers, for example. Because of the access to information, they know how to farm better and how to increase their crops. Information is key now.
Also, one of the biggest problems is economic opportunities. Unemployment in some communities is upward of 40%, and more and more people move to the cities looking for jobs. Even though Africa is very rich in a lot of areas, we still don't produce enough food for the population. We still import a lot.
Dwelling upon the poverty issue, add the problem of global warming here. So we have a huge demographic problem, we have a poverty aspect, and we have global warming that makes our resources scarce. All these aspects need to be addressed, and they've slowly been addressed. But they've not been addressed consistently, and there's still a lack of resources.
Thus, together with others at ARED, we make our contribution to different communities — there are a lot of big challenges and huge opportunities when it comes to each. You know, when there's a big challenge, there is also a huge opportunity.
When there's a big challenge, there is also a huge opportunity.
Great words! In one of your videos, you talk about international collaboration. Could you please briefly explain your opinion about how poverty should be diminished. Should Africa rely on support from the West, I mean seek international support, or maybe it is better to do everything on your own?
There is a simple answer to your question. And it's not only about Africans — it's about everybody. Only Africans can solve our problems — and nobody else. When it comes to Africa, the problem is that Western countries do not put us on the same pedestals as they do each other. People look at Africans as being unable to solve their problems. It's a mindset problem, and we see this problem in foreign entities.
I'll give you an example. Over the last seven years, we applied for a lot of grants. Most of their fund decisions are made outside of our continent by people that have no experience in Africa. They may have experience in the key topics, but they don't understand the ecosystem, and there's a lot of bias.
When it comes to selecting companies, they choose companies from their countries or their continent. The situation’s changing a little bit, but it's not changing that much. So I don't believe that anybody except Africans can solve our problems. We shouldn't blame anybody else, we need to take responsibility for our own decisions and our own mistakes — until we change our mindset.
Just think of it: Africans know more about their colonizers than they know about their own culture. It's crazy. And I'm as guilty as anybody else. Some years ago, I could tell you more about America or France than I could tell you about Rwanda. But how can we build a country or continent when we don't know our own culture? I started learning about my culture when I moved back here, and I still have a long way to go.
As I said, things are changing slowly. I have faith in the next generation. They're more Pan-African. They're more aggressive than my generation. We left Africa because we thought it was better outside than it was locally. I've no shame to say that, and it took me 17 years to realize: it's not that it's better or worse out there. It's just that you create your own opportunities.
It's not that it's better or worse out there. It's just that you create your own opportunities.
That’s true! Dwelling upon the problems we see today, in one of your tweets, you say, "When you look at how the world has been able to mobilize itself to fight this Covid pandemic, why can't we do the same when it comes to fighting poverty or global warming?" One of the reasons probably is that people are not willing to mobilize efforts if they do not feel that the situation affects them personally. So what are the ways to spread awareness among the population?
Well, the problem is not awareness. I work in those communities, and the problem is not awareness — the problem is leadership. It starts with leadership, the right leadership of a country. I don't know any country or any continent that developed itself based on foreign solutions and support.
The problem starts when leaders are not paying attention to their population and their problems. We need to solve most of our problems locally by empowering local people and local communities. And these are leaders that help change the mindset of the population. So, it's not a bottom-up approach, it's a top-to-bottom approach. Poor people know their challenges, they are aware of their problems. But they have no resources, they have no access to information — and that's the main concern.
I see. Leadership can really change a lot. And what ethical values do you believe are the most important in today's world?
Honesty is the number-one value for me. I hate dishonesty. Sometimes, people tell you one thing today, and tomorrow, they tell another thing. That's terrible. I hate such situations. One more value is ethics. But it's also about being honest.
We live in a quick society where people are just moving from one to the next so that dishonesty is becoming normal. That's why today's society seems very dishonest. I would say honesty is a big thing, I am a man of my word. It hurts me when I don't do what I tell you. No, it doesn't happen often. Because I value this trait the most.
Me too! And as I see from your LinkedIn activity, you are a very friendly person, and you give young people a lot of useful information, encouraging them to unite efforts and change the situation in Africa. So my question is, how do the younger generation differ from others? Maybe they are more open-minded, or perhaps they are the same. What do you think?
Well, I can only compare my generation to the next generation. They live in a much more competitive world today. Now, almost everybody has a bachelor's degree. A lot of people have a master's degree, and quite a few people have PhDs. So it's very competitive, right?
Today, you have to find ways to create noise, to stand out from everybody else. Because it's competitive, you have to work extra hard. The other difference between the youth and my generation is that they're more aware of what's going on around the world because of access to the Internet. At least I'll talk about African youth in general.
You see, what we used to know about America was from TV shows. My favorite TV show was “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”. Everybody's rich on that show. Like other shows we used to watch, this one did not show the reality of that country. Now on social media, you see the racism and all the crimes and all those things happening. You see the real picture. So you think twice before making a decision.
Besides, the difference is that today, youth have to be quick. You should take your time and go to high school. Then you do a four-year college, then you do the internship. You have to be quick as things are moving, and technology is changing every few years. You have to find your purpose as quickly as possible.
Also, one more thing I feel for the next generation is the environmental status. We've destroyed this environment, so the next generation is going to have to rebuild it. And if they don't, they will be doomed. I'm not trying to scare people, but they will be doomed because we have polluted this world to a level we have never seen before. I want to spend the rest of my life influencing the youth to get them involved in that issue. For me, it's the biggest fear — the fear for my kids and for the next generation.
I want to spend the rest of my life influencing the youth to get them involved in solving the environmental problem. For me, it's the biggest fear — the fear for my kids and for the next generation.
Yes, definitely. And the last question for you. What do you think is the future of the Tech4Good movement? Do you think that we as a society are ready for it?
Tech4Good movement is the future, it's definitely the future! Consider the concept of NGOs. It's a short-term concept of solving social or poverty problems driven by grants. And when the grant is over, it cannot make a social impact. Unlike NGOs, Tech4Good is more of a long-term implementation of a solution to a community or communities across the world.
Tech4Good is much more sustainable in terms of focus. I'm going to take it even further: it has to be Tech4Good on the local basis, meaning only the people from that community, country, or continent can solve their problems. Bringing organizations from the West and trying to solve global challenges is not the way out. It's not gonna work, and it's not working now.
We need to separate high profit and Tech4Good. There's still a discrepancy between the funding aspect and what the funders are focusing on. They tend to focus mostly on returns instead of focusing more on the impact or the good they're doing in their communities. And the partnership is still lacking in that space.
So for Tech4Good to really grow and increase the impact, there'll be a need for more collaboration and more funding coming into. Tech4Good is not just the future — it's a must and a necessity, and there is no other way around.
Tech4Good is not just the future — it's a must and a necessity, and there is no other way around.
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