Start-Ups For the State

Start-Ups For the State

In a village on the road to Musanze, Rwanda, a group of teenagers is gathered along a dirt embankment. Among them is Jean Damour Nshimiyimana, 19, who dropped out of school and has been earning what he can as a bicycle courier. He’s lounging with his friends but would prefer to be working. Business is slow. “Getting a job isn’t easy,” he said. “No matter how small.”

He’s far from alone. Youth make up some forty percent of the population here and, of them, nearly half are either unemployed or underemployed. And while the problem isn’t unique to Rwanda, or even to Africa, the government’s proposed solution is.

For about a decade now, the Rwandan government has been trying to instill an entrepreneurial spirit — a culture of risk-taking and self-initiative — in the country’s young people. The origins of this effort are difficult to pinpoint, but many believe it came out of a presidential retreat in the mid-2000s. A few years later, when the global financial crisis intensified, the idea took hold as a strategy for combating unemployment, especially among youth. “Entrepreneurship promotion has become a fad around the world. [But] the policy here is more drastic. More encompassing,” said Catherine Honeyman, author of the forthcoming book The Orderly Entrepreneur: Youth, Education, and Governance in Rwanda. “It’s a grand ambition that could lead to great things.”

It starts in the classroom. By 2009, Rwanda had become one of the only countries in the world with mandatory entrepreneurship classes in secondary school, where they’re given similar weight as math, writing, and other core subjects. The government also runs a litany of other trainings, workshops and contests — like a “Ms. Geek” competition — aimed at encouraging young people to create their own opportunities. “An entrepreneurial environment or ecosystem isn’t present everywhere,” said Jean Philbert Nsengimana, the Minister of Youth and ICT. “But in Rwanda we’ve decided to make it available to our young people.”

Nshimiyimana, the 19-year-old from the side of the road, first heard the word “entrepreneur” on Radio Rwanda, the national broadcaster, which airs a weekly program featuring small start-ups “I worked more hours after I heard that,” he said, referring to the story of a woman who had started her own tomato-growing business. “I want to get rich.” And he’s not trying to reach the level of, say, a Bill Gates. Instead, he aspires to emulate a local farmer turned successful businessman. “He lives around here,” said Nshimiyimana, gesturing up the road. “He’s like our model.”

The young bike courier’s decidedly local aspirations hint at what Sara Leedom, managing director of a business accelerator in Kigali, says is a uniquely Rwandan twist on entrepreneurship: a strong nationalist streak. “The first thing out of almost every young entrepreneur’s mouth is, ‘I want to contribute to the growth of Rwanda,’” she said. “No place else that I’ve been so strongly equates entrepreneurship with patriotism and nation building.”

That’s not surprising. National unity has been a central theme during Rwanda’s recovery from the horrific 1994 genocide, and that same top-down, government-led approach to solving problems often extends to other areas as well. At the helm is President Paul Kagame, the long-time leader who effectively took charge after the genocide and has since developed a reputation as a strongman. He recently strengthened his hold on power by embracing — some say orchestrating — a constitutional amendment that could allow him to remain leader until 2034. Whatever this level of control might mean for democracy, it has enabled the government to rapidly propagate its entrepreneurship edict.

In less than a decade, Rwanda has incorporated entrepreneurship into nearly all facets of its government — from the “Human Capital and Institutional Development Department” of the Rwandan Development Board to innovation camps put on by the Workforce Development Agency to international partnerships like the kLab incubator. While coordination between these agencies could still be improved, in some ways the push seems to be bearing fruit.

For one thing, awareness of the term “entrepreneur” has become almost ubiquitous. More tangibly, training programs like Akazi Kanoze, which aims to teach youth work-readiness skills, have found a foothold. According to the non-profit organization that coordinates the project, it has reached roughly 20,000 youth and created almost 9,000 new jobs since 2009. That said, with an estimated 125,000 young Rwandans entering the labor market each year, only a fraction of the demand is being met. And in many cases, gaps between the government’s intentions and what’s happening on the ground are all too evident.

“[Government institutions] are focused on what they think youth should be doing, not on what youth priorities are,” writes Marc Somers, the author of Stuck: Rwandan Youth and the Struggle for Adulthood. Sometimes the manifestations of this gap are harmlessly perplexing, like Innovation Village — a publicly funded, privately run, and sleekly outfitted space perched on the roof of the Kigali Public Library. Complete with handcrafted furniture and Wi-Fi, it feels like it could have been transplanted wholesale from Brooklyn or San Francisco. But its precise function remains unclear. Visitors can stop in the café, rent a co-working office, or attend a lecture in the cultural forum. People seem enthusiastic about the nebulously defined project, even if it does feel a bit out of reach of the average Rwandan, whose $2 a day salary would cover little more than a coffee.

But the government’s disconnect from the challenges facing young people also has more serious consequences. According to Honeyman, state-led promotion of entrepreneurship has been accompanied by increased regulations aimed at formalizing the economy. The result is that, while it’s free to register a business at the national level, initial taxes and local fees can add up to as much as $65, which far surpasses the small amounts of capital typically available to most Rwandan youth. This conundrum forces many would-be entrepreneurs into the informal economy. Or, worse yet, it leaves them unemployed.

The road outside Muzanze is paved — another one of the government’s massive development undertakings — and heavily used. Jean Didier, 22, is from a few towns over. He says that he graduated at the top of his high school class and dreams of becoming a doctor. But university is too expensive, so he’s wandering in search of a job. “I’m just looking for ways to raise money,” Didier said, dejectedly. But he perked up when talking about starting a business. Inspired by entrepreneurship classes he took in school, he sees a potential market opportunity for starting a chicken farm. But “the capital to start such a business is still really a problem,” he says, the excitement quickly fading from his voice.

Currently, Rwanda is only meeting about half of its target of creating 200,000 jobs per year. The hope is that the focus on entrepreneurship can help fill the void, though it’s too early to know whether that goal is realistic. Rwanda recognizes that there are many kinks in the entrepreneurial pipeline that need fixing, especially the lack of start-up capital and regulatory hurdles. The government could draw on examples from elsewhere, such as Nigeria, where a national competition for small businesses was found by the World Bank to have created lasting jobs.

This fall, schools are implementing a redesigned entrepreneurship curriculum which emphasizes critical thinking and creativity over more specific skills like accounting. Rwanda is also expanding, and encouraging students to enter, its technical and vocational high school track. Officials’ excitement about these new initiatives is palpable, even if it does make them prone to cliché. Florian Rutiyomba, an entrepreneurship curriculum specialist at the Rwanda Education Board, describes the new curriculum as being “about awakening somebody [to think] beyond the box. Outside the box.”

“Outside the box,” however, is a realm in which Rwandan officials don’t have much experience. From a practical standpoint, many of the teachers tasked with implementing the entrepreneurship curriculum have no expertise in the subject. More fundamentally, while the government is touting the inherently unpredictable notion of entrepreneurialism, it’s also, says Honeyman, “trying to have a very orderly process of development.” That’s a paradox that could prove painful.

For instance, what might other — perhaps political — applications of entrepreneurial spirit mean in an arguably authoritarian state? “Promoting entrepreneurial creativity, and the democratization of the classroom that goes with it, can definitely encourage youth to be more vocal about their situation and their needs,” said Honeyman. “[But] I’m not sure that there is any concern with this at the government level.”

Instead, Rwanda is betting that government can create a generation of entrepreneurs — from the youth on the roadside in Musanze to those on the Innovation Village rooftop — who will be able to sidestep the unemployment that’s trapped so many of their peers around the globe. Successful or not, it’s an experiment that will offer lessons far beyond East Africa. “An entrepreneur can be inborn, but to a large extent an entrepreneur is made,” said Rutiyomba. “You know, it takes the whole village to raise a child.”

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

In the photo, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde learns about online teaching resources at kLab on January 28, 2015 in Kigali, Rwanda.

Photo credit: Stephen Jaffe/IMF via Getty Images