IT Capacity Building in Rwanda

‘Capacity building’? Huh? I have an idea of what the concept means – working with people in developing societies to strengthen their skills, competencies and abilities – but it’s not something I’ve ever been involved in or too concerned about. But it looks like a really interesting opportunity to get involved has sort of fallen into my lap and I’m excited about it.

I don’t remember exactly how  got involved but I’m currently sitting at the kLab, a pretty amazing office atop a building in central Kigali. The kLab tries to address the need for a space for people working in Kigali’s IT community. Somewhere for them to interact, share ideas, help each other out, and teach each other, all while forming a community willing to work together to push the IT industry in Rwanda forward. A place with reliable internet and a nice working environment to bring solo IT workers together to collaborate, network and push the IT industry forward. Coming from a partnership of public, private and educational institutions, kLab was born and exists as a not-for-profit workspace aimed at capacity building for the IT industry. It’s primarily funded by JICA (Japan’s version of USAid) and the Private Sector Federation and the Rwanda Development Board has donated the sixth floor of the Telecom Building, internet, power and all that practical stuff.

kLab is a non-profit venture and to be able to work from here you have to commit to being either a mentor or a tenant – there’s no paying for a desk space. Tenants tend to be young Rwandans who are working on IT-related projects of their own. To be accepted into the kLab they have to pitch their idea and commit to working on the project during their time in the office. Mentors are people, some foreign, some local, who have a good amount of experience in their field and an interest in sharing their knowledge.

This is where I come in. While I’d never describe myself as an IT person, I do have a good amount of experience with websites and more to offer than I originally thought. I had an opportunity on Tuesday to attend a promo day where four guys presented their projects in an effort to get feedback on both their ideas and also their presentation skills. It was an interesting evening and, while I wasn’t blown away by any of the ideas, you could see that some of these guys are very talented.

One thing in particular that struck me was that the four presenters all seemed very focused on what their product/website could offer and all of the cool things it could do, without much of a focus on how to turn their idea into a viable business. For a few of them, the strategy was to offer it for free, let people see how amazing the product or service is, and then start charging them. If a business idea isn’t good enough to stand on it’s own from the beginning, then it probably never will be. The presenters didn’t seem to give much thought to the business side of things and seemed to think that, because they had a website that was capable of doing something cool, that it would make them money somehow. They were getting caught up in the details without looking at the bigger picture.

This got me thinking a bit about my own approach to web development and my own path. I feel like I’ve come from somewhere in the middle where I have a bit of technical knowledge (enough to put together a simple website) and, while I’m able to dream up big ideas for what I’d like my websites to do, I don’t have the skills to actually pull these ideas off and need to outsource. I wonder if this is a really good thing that I’ve never thought of before. I feel like, if I had mad programming skills, I’d get caught up in all of the amazing things I was creating and doing and lose track of whether any of these things are actually useful to people.

I’m really excited to be involved in this project. Not only is kLab and amazing place to work (it’s got an almost 360 degree view from the top floor of a high building on a hill in Kigali) but it’s also nice to be back in an office-ish environment, meeting interesting people and learning what people here are working on. As someone who is self-employed and works on things that have nothing to do with Rwanda (my Kigali life site is the exception), I don’t have much contact with Rwanda on a business or working level and it’s nice to get more involved. Plus it’s exciting to be involved in what will eventually grow to become the hub for innovation in IT in Rwanda.

Plus, besides feeling connected work-wise, I’m also excited to get more involved in things in this city and to commit myself to things. I’ve made a conscious decision to live in Kigali until I get sick of it (which won’t happen anytime soon) or until they get sick of me (I’m applying for a work visa on Monday which means that I won’t have to worry about being denied entry for abusing my tourist visas) and it’s exciting for me to make longer term commitments.

So that’s what I’m up to at the moment! I’m loving being back, seeing friends, getting back into a routine and working on some interesting projects. I love being in Kigali anyways, but when you throw cool stuff like the kLab at me, it reaffirms why I love this place so much and I’m looking forward to seeing what the next few months hold for me.

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