Erik P.M. Vermeulen

@erikpmvermeulen

I hate to talk about the “Next Silicon Valley,” but…

I think I’ve seen it: Kigali!

I am lucky to have the opportunity to travel to many fascinating and exciting places around the world.

This week I have been in Kigali, Rwanda.

Wherever I go, entrepreneurship, innovation, and disruption are among the most discussed topics. The phrase “the Next Silicon Valley” is often used.

And I hate this phrase.

Everybody should know by now that Silicon Valley cannot be replicated. It’s a unique ecosystem, mindset, or — as some have even referred to it — religion.

Whenever I visit Silicon Valley, you can breathe the “entrepreneurial spirit.” But I can also see that the shine of Silicon Valley starts to wear (as being described in many Medium stories recently). It’s becoming more “corporate,” profit-driven and many “world-changing” innovations are starting to happen in other places.

However, it is still difficult to imagine an ecosystem as powerful or impactful. The usual suspects, such as Tel Aviv, Berlin, London, Toronto, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Tokyo don’t come close when it comes to the success and impact of “Silicon Valley.”

Don’t get me wrong. The number of start-ups and investments are increasing in these regions. And, yes, you can see (and measure) the effects of innovation on business and job creation. But the entrepreneurial spirit isn’t as remarkable or as visible as what I’ve experienced in Silicon Valley.

So, when I landed in Kigali, Rwanda last week, I had no expectations whatsoever. I really didn’t know what to expect.

But after being here for one week, I experienced one pleasant surprise after another.

Does this mean that Kigali and Silicon Valley can be compared in terms of the ecosystem architecture? No, of course not, the “ecosystems” are lightyears away from each other. It doesn’t make sense to compare them.

But the excitement and energy I felt in Kigali was very similar to my first visit to Silicon Valley.

I don’t say that Kigali will be the next Silicon Valley, but I have experienced something exciting, unique, and potentially transformative.

During the week, I could see a distinctive innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem emerging. The Kigali ecosystem has the potential to become extremely attractive to investors (foreign and domestic), attract regional talent, and have an enormous impact on the local society and the environment.

The focus in Kigali is on “tech-innovations for good” in the crucial areas that the United Nations refers to as Sustainable Development Goals, instead of clicks on advertisements, e-commerce transactions, or attracting as many subscriptions as quickly as possible.

So here are three ingredients that I found surprising and made me believe that we should all keep a close eye on the evolution of this particular ecosystem.

Community thinking and partnering for innovation

When I arrived, I could never have expected that the 2018 World Economic Forum reference to Kigali as the “cleanest city on the planet,” could have been accurate. But now I can testify that in terms of the lack of trash, as well as green initiatives, Kigali looks a lot like Singapore. But, apparently, without the need for strict (criminal) laws on littering.

After having talked to residents, I found out that government initiatives led to well-maintained public transportation systems and road and communication infrastructures.

But it was mentioned repeatedly that the main contributors to Kigali’s cleanliness are the residents themselves who are performing a day of community work, called “umuganda,” once a month. This “requirement” is mainly “enforced” through creating awareness, bringing residents from the informal to the formal economy by creating relatively well-paid jobs for cleaners, trash collectors and gardeners, but also by creating and setting up partnerships with local businesses (to establish trash collection sites in suburban areas and to install public toilets).

This sense of community and commitment is also felt across initiatives for more disruptive innovation and entrepreneurship. Many mention the speedy and simple business registration process (note the 29th position in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Ranking, which is higher than France, The Netherlands, and Israel). There is also an established community for early-stage tech start-ups, incubators, and free co-working spaces.

This community has already attracted foreign entrepreneurs. For instance, when I was waiting in the lobby of the hotel, I saw two employees of Silicon Valley-based company Zipline. Zipline (according to their website) has built the world’s fastest and most reliable delivery drone. The company found in Rwanda a “laboratory-like” environment to pilot blood and medicine deliveries by drone. This kind of partnering-for-innovation (with a social and environmental impact) can be found everywhere in Kigali.

It is only to be expected that we will soon see the further development of smart city initiatives, autonomous machines, and other emerging technologies for good.

Younger generation

While strolling through the streets of Kigali, I was struck by the number of young people. More research (back in the hotel) showed that forty percent of the Rwandan population is aged between 14 and 35 years.

These tech-savvy “millennials” will help with the transition from an agriculture-driven and handicraft economy to a knowledge-based and digital economy. We often hear talk of how digital technologies can help agrarian economies “leapfrog” industrialization, but on the ground in Kigali, I saw that such talk can be very real.

What is even more critical in this respect is that the younger generation puts significant pressure on established and traditional companies. For instance, during one of my workshops it became very clear that traditional banks are not trusted by the younger generation anymore. This trend makes it easier for innovative companies, products, and services to thrive.

Also, people seem willing to quit their jobs to experiment and are not afraid to start something new. For instance, during one of the dinners a member of a Development Finance Institution told me about his afternoon meeting with two young entrepreneurs who successfully started a human resource management company specifically targeting the younger generation.

Ordered chaos

I am confident and excited about the potential of Kigali.

That’s not to say that everything works efficiently. Of course, there is still some degree of “chaos” in this relatively young city (there were only 6,000 inhabitants in 1962) and it obviously has had a turbulent recent history. And, foreigners (referred to as “Mzungu”) are still viewed with some scepticism.

But here is the thing. The city doesn’t seem to be consumed by tradition or history. It celebrates its lack of bureaucracy. It embraces the future and the possibilities of a digital age.

The city can best be described as existing in a state of “ordered chaos.” This provides the freedom to be entrepreneurial and innovative (something that is not true in overly-ordered societies) but also has enough structure and infrastructure for such innovation and entrepreneurship to have the chance to flourish and succeed.

This cocktail of qualities is already being acknowledged by foreign investors, such as sovereign wealth funds and development banks.

In one of my conversations with a foreign investor last week, the term the new “Wild West” was mentioned. And not in a pejorative sense, but in the sense of exciting, new and unknown opportunities.

I can’t wait to go back to Kigali and see how emerging technologies help the country (and perhaps the world) change for good.

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