Kigali is building the Silicon Valley of Africa

Wed October 19, 2022

The skyline of Rwanda’s capital Kigali has been transformed in the past 20 years with new architecture emerging to help support the growing economy. The same group of architects created some of the important structures that are now fueling the city’s entrepreneurial spirit.

International firm MASS Design Group constructed its largest office in Rwanda. Norrsken Kigali House, a start-up hub commissioned by the Swedish Norrsken Foundation, a global supporter of entrepreneurship, is one of its most current and spectacular designs.

Up to 600 businesses use the hub daily, and work is expected to be finished by March 2023. The hub debuted in December 2021. It seeks to draw more than 1,000 workers each day and establish itself as the largest entrepreneurial hub on the continent.

Christian Benimana, senior principal at MASS and a native of Kigali, explains that after deciding to build on a former school’s site in the city’s center, the architects’ top priority was figuring out how to transform the area “from a closed state to an open hub to bring in as many people as possible.” He notes that because they made the building visible from the street, the pergola—which serves as a venue for conferences and workshops—feels like a “public plaza.”

For Benimana, the future of Rwanda is being shaped by this approach to problem-solving. He thinks the Rwanda that evolved after the genocide and civil war of 1994 has fostered a culture of “thinking outside the box to find unusual answers to unconventional challenges through innovation.”

Innovative design

Rwanda is ranked first out of 13 low-income economies and seventh out of 27 Sub-Saharan African nations on the 2021 Global Innovation Index. Investment and business-friendly policies support its creative strategy.

Large-scale development projects are being carried out throughout, including a $214 million hydroelectric facility on the Nyabarongo River. President Paul Kagame wants to see Rwanda become a middle-income nation by 2035.

However, some claim that Kagame’s achievement has come at a price. The US State Department noted “serious human rights issues” in Rwanda in a report from the previous year, and other international human rights organizations have also expressed concern.

However, according to the World Bank, the nation has had “strong economic growth… supported by substantial improvements in living standards.” A $100 million initiative to construct Kigali Financial Square in the capital with the goal of making it a regional financial hub was launched in June. It is intended that a twin-tower office at the center of the development, which will be inhabited by the Kenyan firm Equity Group Holding, will draw additional international investment and enhance the nation’s standing as the most business-friendly climate in Africa.

The green micro-mobility startup Guraride, which launched Rwanda’s first public bike share program in 2021 and has a docking station at Norrsken Kigali House, is one of the businesspeople drawn to the nation.

Tony Adesina, the Nigerian CEO of Guararide, claims that choosing Rwanda to test its program was a “no brainer.” He continues, “We’re looking at a scenario where Kigali becomes the Silicon Valley of Africa, where it’s the major hub where you talk about new technology.”

The 100 bikes and 18 docking stations that were dispersed throughout the city were self-funded by Adesina and his four co-founders, but he claims that a key factor in their decision to locate here was the “desire of the government to promote such new initiatives.”

In other African cities like Nairobi, Kenya, and Marrakech, Morocco, public bike share programs have also been tested. Adesina claims that in Africa, cycling is often associated with poverty, and changing the “social stigma” is one of the most difficult challenges.

“Missions, not majors”

The African Leadership University, another recently opened MASS-designed structure, is providing additional assistance to young, aspiring entrepreneurs in the city.

By encouraging students to focus on “missions, not majors”—where they seek to solve some of the biggest problems in the world rather than studying traditional topics (or “majors”)—the institution hopes to cultivate the next generation of leaders in Africa.

The brand-new Kigali campus debuted in 2020, with a layout intended to support the university’s more individualized learning environment.

Benimana claims that the institution is built “around (the) idea of a pod,” which accommodates little break-out study places for individual or group learning, with a striking absence of any lecture halls. This is intended to dispel the myth of “the all-knowing teacher at the front of the room,” according to Chiedza Mutsaka Skyum, associate director at the institution.

As evidence that this strategy is effective, according to Skyum, graduates include tech founders, climate change campaigners, and agriculturalists making a difference in their professions

Some of these graduates are already use Norrsken Kigali House as their base of operations and assisting in the expansion of the local business ecosystem. One such graduate is Minuifuong Nghombombong, founder of the global home renting marketplace Bongalo.

According to Nghombombong, “Rwanda is a miraculous country that came from nowhere to where it is today.”

“Take a look around you; you’ll see evidence of how incredible things can be created when a group of people gather together and concentrate on a common objective.”

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