What usually comes next is a blank stare. I can see the gears turning, see them use what little they know about Rwanda and try to resolve that with a technology startup. So to answer all those blank stares, I thought I'd write up how this came to be, why it isn't crazy at all but rather so obviously right.
The story starts in the summer of '09. My friend Nell Grey, a film maker, had gone to Arusha in the fall of '08 to help film interviews with prosecutors and other staff involved in the UN trials surrounding the Rwandan genocide. That project, Voices from the Rwanda Tribunal, was returning to Rwanda that summer, and she suggested that maybe I could be of use helping them find ways of making the content available in creative ways.
Now I should preface this with the brief aside that I'd been looking for a way to 'give back' for a while, but wasn't sure how exactly my set of skills fit in. My interest was in the developing world but I was neither a doctor nor engineer. I believed in my own ability to figure things out, to be able to help somehow, but had to be honest with myself that I didn't seem particularly qualified to help.
One small part of the project's plans for the trip was to make segments of the interviews available to the public. We brainstormed on various ways of doing so, from distributing CDs or DVDs, to radio broadcasts, USB keys etc.. After some research it seemed to me that one promising approach might be to try to deliver the content via phones.
The penetration of mobile phones in Rwanda is roughly 30% and growing quickly. That might seem low until you realize that the penetration of electricity is only 10%. Most of the country has cell coverage, even the rural areas, and there is fierce competition from three different carriers. Handsets are available for just a few dollars used and once you have a phone, you can walk into any number of shops and walk out five minutes later with a new number, without contracts to sign and without any commitments. You only pay for outgoing calls or text messages, and money you add to your account is valid for 18 months, so the economic cost for a cell phone is tiny.
My proposal was to deliver short, key, segments of the interviews using an SMS callback system. A user would send a text message to a number, specifying which segment they wanted to hear, and our system would call them back, playing the segment and allowing the user to leave a voice comment. The user would only pay for the cheap outgoing text, and we could not only reach a broad audience but also collect their thoughts. I spent a weekend hacking together a system that worked on a laptop, crossed my fingers and hopped on the plane for my three weeks in Kigali.
That's when I got my first lesson that the West, and I include myself in that bucket, is terrible at evaluating the needs and demands of the developing world. My exposure to Rwanda's genocide was limited at this point, though I was the technical counsel for the project, I only knew what I had read. Once we arrived, we found that the general population wasn't terribly interested in the UN's ICTR process. They viewed it as ineffective, taking a decade to try a few dozen people, and largely irrelevant to their own problems of trying to put a country back together, of dealing with hundreds of thousands of genocide suspects. They had crafted their own solution to that in the Gacaca court system and weren't particularly interested in the pontifications of various UN staff on their own process. There was much good that would come out of the Tribunal Voices project, but my part wasn't going to be it.
But from that failure came a silver lining. It freed me up to spend more time learning about the state of software in Rwanda, to learn of their goals and ambitions. I was soon exposed to Rwanda's Vision 2020 Plan, a concerted and well organized effort by the government to reinvent the country in the next decade. Part of that vision is to set the groundwork for an information based economy. Rwanda, a land locked country, with very few natural resources and no large tourist draw, is in a tough place when it comes to growing more prosperous. You can't set up manufacturing facilities in a country where transportation costs are so high, and the largest cash crops of coffee and tea bring in less than $100M a year combined, a pittance for a country of ten million. So Rwanda has made the bold decision to try to build their economy on information instead. In a digital world of bits and bytes your transportation costs are zero and there is no reason why a country in the middle of Africa can't participate in the global software economy. All it needs is the infrastruture and people.
Rwanda is making great strides on both fronts. The country will soon have multiple fiber optic connections to the internet, replacing their slow and expensive satellite uplinks. Internet kioks are planned for the rural areas and they have even decided to participate in the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, setting the stage for the entirety of their next generation to be computer litterate in grade school.
The people are there too. Computer Science curriculums are full at the universities, students eager to take part in the new economy. Individual entrepreneurs are everywhere and more and more small software companies are popping up.
But one thing they don't have is experience. Classes are filled with bright students, but many are being taught by professors who have never written software themselves, how could they have? So the learning is largely book based despite computers being available, because some of the teachers themselves are nervous about coding. What companies do exist are still working through the growing pains of how to build software repeatedly. They are doing their best and learning quickly, but still at a disadvantage, the field brand new to them.
Here I saw an opportunity. There was clearly a need, a need for experience in building software, a need I was actually perfectly suited to satisfy. Along the way I had met a professor and software engineer in Kigali, Emile Bniz NIYIBIZI, and through him I did some teaching at a local university, doing a few lectures on web technologies. That reminded me of how much I loved teaching, especially software, and helped spawn the idea of starting a software company there. A company that would hire and train local Rwandans to build software the way I knew how. I spent my last few days talking to various Rwandans about this, and what I heard back was an enthusiastic yes, yes that it was needed, yes that it would work, yes to do it.
I returned to Seattle excited, but still unsure as to how to move forward, conflicted. On one hand I had found something that seemed like a perfect fit for my desire for adventure, a way to give back that fit my skills, but on the other I had a successful company with my best friend Eric Newcomer. We had built Trileet up from nothing over the past four years and it was still doing well. But as it happened, when I talked to Eric about it, his reaction was a shared enthusiasm. He too saw the uniqueness of the situation, and was excited by it. So with my best friend and business partner on board, we flew back to Kigali in January, this time to really evaluate how realistic we were being and whether to move forward.
As we prepared for the trip, we started contacting others doing similar work. One particularly fortuitous connection was with Matt Berg, who hooked us into the small but growing world of RapidSMS and UNICEF.
SMS is being used in more and more projects in Africa, as a way of both collecting and spreading information. Its incredible penetration and simplicity is well suited to the challenging environments there, and the applications using it are only limited by your imagination. Many countries have implemented systems which allow farmers and fishermen to access the local market prices for their goods, reducing the information inequality present when selling to middlemen. Other systems have been built to help keep track of drug or blood supplies in clinics, allowing clinics with no power, phone or internet connections to be part of regional supply systems.
As it worked out, Matt was going to be in nearby Uganda meeting with Sean Blaschke at UNICEF and various others. We tweaked our plans a bit and ended up meeting them both for a weekend in Kampala. What we found was exciting. The number of projects involving SMS was only growing, and there was a high demand for companies fluent in those systems, doubly so if they were in Africa. We also found out that there was a UNICEF project currently stalled in Kigali. They had a design and prototype for an SMS system to track maternity and child health, but needed an engineer to help train local developers and deploy that system, all as soon as possible.
This seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up, so I decided to prolong my stay in Rwanda for another month. That month only reinforced our belief that this made sense. The system was exciting to build, both in helping train the developers, and in the final product. It did real good, had a real potential for impact, moreso than any other product I had ever worked on, and my skills and experience couldn't have been more perfectly suited.
Upon my return we started the process of setting up Nyaruka in earnest. I started packing up my place, Eric and I discussed how we would structure things and we began planning. We aren't so naive as to think we know how things will really turn out, but the current plan is this: Our company will be based in Kigali, where we will find bright, motivated students to train on Python, Django and RapidSMS. Initially, we will specialize in building SMS based systems. From there we will see. The software market in Rwanda, and East Africa in general is wide open. Opportunities abound for building software for the government and private sectors, there is even opportunity to help build localized software for the OLPCs, bringing our experience making games to bear on interactive learning software, another of our passions.
I can say without hesitation that this is the most exciting opportunity I've ever had. On some level it feels too easy, too perfect, so I have to temper that excitement with a little forced pessimism. But in the end, it comes down to having the chance to take the one thing I am best at, building software, and do good with it. And that is exciting on a whole different level. That I get to do it with my best friend makes it doubly unbelievable.
We'll do our best to keep this blog updated with our progress, our challenges, our successes and even our failings. We don't expect to succeed everywhere or everytime, but we'll try our best and learn from it, and hope to share those lessons here. We'll see you then.