Interview: Rwandan Mobile Technology company HeHe Labs

HeHe Labs rwanda entrepreneur

Clarisse Iribagiza is the co-founder and CEO of HeHe Labs, a Rwandan Mobile Technology research and innovation lab. The company offers mobile solutions for different sectors, such as agriculture, infrastructure and healthcare, as well as code programs for schools and universities in Rwanda. BiD Network arranged a business trip to the Netherlands for Clarisse, filled with B2B meetings and an opportunity to pitch her business during our investor cocktail on March 26nd. She’s hoping to find investment to keep her business growing.

HeHe Labs was founded in August of 2010, when Clarisse had finished a program in mobile technology and entrepreneurship during her studies in computer engineering. “The program made me realize I could build something meaningful with the skills I had developed during my studies. HeHe means “where” in Kinyarwanda and is based on the first application we built during the program, which was location-based and helped people to get around and find their way in Kigali. Working on this application helped us acquiring the skills needed to build different types of mobile information systems.”

Can you tell a bit more about the sectors HeHe Labs is focusing on and some of your current applications?

“I would say we are an engineering firm; our work is around research and product development. The applications we develop are quite diverse but all focused on helping organizations improve their operational efficiency through the use of ICT and specifically mobile technologies.

Up to 80% of our population is involved in agriculture in some way. We have built a value chain agriculture application, as ICT enables to improve how agriculture is done. On this we work together with a couple of partners, such as our export board and SNV, a Dutch NGO. The platform connects farmers to markets and allows them to be part of decision making processes that are affecting the farmers’ productivity.

We also have built an Uber-like solution for motorbikes in Kampala, Uganda. This service especially focuses on safety, as usually a lot of these motorbikes don’t have any helmets or safety gear and they tend to drive very reckless. So we built a community of motorbike drivers who we train in road safety and customer care and provide with safety gear. The application allows customers to connect to them. Right now, we have about 50 motorbike drivers and almost a million subscribers to the platform.”

How do you find new clients?

“Initially, we would approach potential clients. Nowadays it is mostly because of recommendations of other clients that new clients know how to find us and our brand reputation. We are always under pressure to meet the expectations of our clients.”

Do your products and services serve a greater region as well?

“Yes, we just launched the motorbike application in Kampala, Uganda, and a digital content store for the whole of Africa. This platform, called Nuntu, which means “the new thing”, enables digital content producers, such as writers, musicians and application developers, to monetize their work in the continent. We were in need of this ourselves, because it is quite difficult to monetize our apps in the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store as they get lost between millions of other applications. Also, the payment methods in these content stores are often not suitable for the African continent. So we decided to build our own content store which is focused on Africa and offers the appropriate payment methods. It was launched three months ago and has currently around 1.2 million users.”

How big is the team of HeHe Labs at the moment?

“Right now, our team consists of 21 people. The core team is 8 people and we are mentoring 13 young people who are recent high school graduates and are in an internship program for about 6 months. They work on different products within the company to get hands-on experience, but they also go out and transfer the knowledge and skills that they developed with us to our high school coding classes.”

Can you tell a bit more about the code clubs?

“We have now 5 high schools and 1 university code club around the country. Creating employment opportunities and giving these young people the ability to create their own jobs is at the core of what we do. Students that graduate from our program either go on and create their own jobs by starting their own businesses or continue to work with us in one way or another.

At the moment, we have to turn away hundreds of young people that want to be part of the company. It is heartbreaking that we can’t take them all in. We select students from the schools where we run our programs; passion is key in our selection process. We also believe diversity within the team is important and therefore we are very intentional about the male/female ratio. At the moment we have about 45% girls in our program and our program runs in one of the top science & technology girl schools in Rwanda. A lot of girls have not received the encouragement they need to be able to pursue careers related to science, technology, engineering, math etc., so we know we have to be active in giving them that opportunity.”

What do you need the investment for?

We are looking for growth capital, so that we can improve the quality of what we are doing in terms of providing a solution as a service and not only as a one-off product. This will allow us to lower the costs of our solutions. We would really love to serve all the customers that are walking through our doors, and not see them turn away because of a price tag or because our team is too small to serve their needs. Hence what we really need the investment for is to be able to lower the costs of our services and have a more efficient team, so that we can meet the demand.”

Looking back, what would you say is your biggest achievement?

“I am proud of what we have accomplished as an organization, looking at all the odds that were against us when we started. When we started, no one really believed that a group of young people could build these types of technologies, including some people on our team at that time. But we have been able to do this for the last five years and have grown. Now, we can give this opportunity to a lot more young people. Getting at this point with all the conditions that we were facing is amazing for us.”

Where do you aim to be in 5 years?

“The mantra of our organization is “invent the future”. We get frustrated if all we do as a continent is repurpose a technology from elsewhere that already exists and try to make it fit within our context. What we really want to do is be at the forefront of creating innovations that are FROM Africa, that are home-grown and make sense for our continent. In five years, we want to look back and say that we actually have been able to build something from scratch that is truly an African product and serves the continent.”

Thank you, Clarisse, and we wish you the best of luck in the future!