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Exploring Rwanda, a Frontier Market for Creative, Cross-Cutting Industries

By Margaret Mandeya and Julienne Gage | Sat Dec 03 2022
Renew Capital actively investigates impact investing opportunities in the East African nation
It’s Saturday night in Kigali, and crowds of stylishly dressed Rwandans pour into Century Cinema in the city’s vibrant downtown for the Mashariki African Film Festival. Some men wear colorful Converse sneakers with their closely tailored suits. Some women wear ceremonial mushananas–  flowy silk and satin dresses with over-the-shoulder sashes. 
“Film and creative industry usually has a lot of energy, especially on Saturday,” Rwandan Minister of ICT and Innovation Paula Ingabire tells the audience during the premiere of La Gravité, a sci-fi movie written and produced by French-Burkinabé director, writer and actor Cedric Ido. The minister came to watch the film and tout Rwanda’s advances in growing creative, cross-cutting industries.
“One can only say that the potential is real and there are so many opportunities going forward to really build a very strong and vibrant industry,” she continues. “The filming industry is one that has a high potential of creating decent jobs, and beyond just decent jobs, it is also an opportunity for us as Africa, as East Africa, as Rwanda to really tell our story, from the eyes of people that are being part of that story."
The theme of the festival was Afrofuturism, a fitting description for the week-long event that closed on December 2, a date designated by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as World Futures Day
The event also coincides with Renew Capital’s recent efforts to grow its Kigali office and scale up its engagement in Rwanda’s markets. The firm first established a presence there in April 2021 with the goal of growing the country’s small and medium-sized enterprises and helping connect Rwanda’s private sectors to international markets. Renew Capital now has a staff of four in Kigali, including investment and legal consultants and a marketing and communications associate. 
The film festival was one place for Renew Capital to explore opportunities and learn more about the potential that Rwanda offers for impact investing. As the minister noted, Rwanda’s creative industries are just one among many areas of innovation. She reminded audiences that the global film industry is learning to thrive after being disrupted by emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, internet of things and 3D printing, but those innovations can be instrumental in how members of a society engage each other. And she wants the world to know Rwanda is standing at the frontier of a whole new global economy. 
“With technology, we are very crosscutting. You'll find us in healthcare, in education, in agriculture,” Ingabire says. 
Rwanda is Ripe for Investment 
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Rwanda is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. The Rwanda Development Board lays out at least 11 investment areas with potential, including manufacturing, tourism, ICT, infrastructure, energy and agriculture—a sector that currently makes up 35% of the national GDP. Entrepreneurship is also thriving in Rwanda thanks to the ease of doing business. It doesn’t take much to register a new company and the startup ecosystem is well developed. As a result, the SME investment landscape in Rwanda offers many opportunities. 
All across Kigali, Rwandans talk of the confidence they have in what they can provide to domestic and international markets, while also voicing concerns that old models of development are no longer working. Rwandan Chamber of Commerce Director of Finance and Administration Manzi Germain told Renew Capital that traditional aid institutions sometimes focus too heavily on the training aspects, without providing finance. 
For example, he noted that seven of Rwanda’s key agricultural products—coffee, tea, plantains, honey, beans and flowers—are in demand at the domestic, regional and international levels. While small-scale farmers have spent years updating their knowledge of producing these products and organizing their businesses through microenterprise cooperatives and development programs, Germain believes the bigger issue is the ability of these farmers to access capital to scale these businesses to meet demand. 
Businesses need credit to build the structures and obtain the packaging materials required to get their products to market. 
Germain says Rwandan agribusinesses often ask him things like “where am I going to actually store these fertilizers? Where are the facilities?”
“Not all (development) agencies are open to it,” he says, noting that some agencies have a very simplified understanding of the teach-a-villager-to-fish philosophy. “They say, ‘No you teach them. That's it and that's it.’” 
Other industries are highly developed but lack the necessary connectivity to the population. This is common with agribusiness. It’s also a challenge for Rwanda’s healthcare industry which has been touted as a success story because of its universal health coverage scheme, efficient systems and world-class facilities. But when it comes to ambulances, the country is facing a major shortage. 
“We have Volkswagon here and we have Toyota here, but they cannot manufacture those quantities on the deadline we have,” Germain Manzi says, noting that there aren’t enough assembly lines for mass production. However, some facilities have produced a handful of specialized ambulatory vehicles for VIPs. “It would take them a year to be able to manufacture them, and you find it would be at a higher cost.” 
Renew Capital believes its model can help fill that gap. And in fact, Renew Capital Angels, the firm’s investor network, has previously invested in a private-sector ambulance solution in Ethiopia—East Africa Emergency Services LTD (EAES), which partners with Tebita Ambulance to provide international and domestic clients with access to reliable, high-quality emergency care.
Renew Capital provides the level of capital that established SMEs need to get to the next level. Alongside investments, the firm provides a unique form of capacity building to ensure that SME executives can show they have done their due diligence to be investment ready and are prepared to scale. 
Desire Nduwarugira, a Kigali-based Renew Capital project manager, says the firm is ready to equip established SMEs with tailored support. Like Germain Manzi, Nduwarugira agrees that some entrepreneurs have the skills to run their companies, but access to finance is their biggest barrier to take their business to the next level. At the same time, there are still some who didn’t get the chance to learn about business management even though they got access to finance. 
“Renew Capital helps them to better use their capital. It has a solution for both categories of entrepreneurs,” says Nduwarugira. “Boosting SMEs’ growth creates more jobs and greatly contributes to the economy, specifically where unemployment is high.”
“I like to think of Renew Capital as a home for entrepreneurs. In Rwanda’s private sector, growth-minded entrepreneurs are not quite sure of who to turn to for financial and management support which are the two pain points the firm sets out to remedy,” says Renew Capital Legal Counsel Lincoln Ford Linguyeneza.
Back at Century Cinemas, Mashariki Film Festival Director Tresor Senga took a break from his event hosting to speak with Renew Capital. A pioneer in the country’s burgeoning tech and creative industries, Senga explains that it was the rehashing of one of Rwanda’s worst historical stories that led him to foster an industry for telling new ones. In the early 2000s, foreign filmmakers had been coming to Rwanda to chronicle the country’s 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. That included the production of films such as the 2004 Hollywood feature Hotel Rwanda
Senga, a used car salesman at the time, began learning film production basics by watching Youtube videos and networking with the foreign film crews. Through them, he was able to attend master filmmaking classes in Toronto, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Berlin and other major media production hubs.
“The money that I (made) was invested in the film industry. I produced my first film in 2012 in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Gisenyi (a Rwandan resort city on the border with DRC),” he says. It was a short feature, but it gave him an entree to screen at different festivals. “Then I found myself in the industry until now.”
By 2013 Senga had founded the Mashariki African Film Festival, and a few years later, he was partnering with Italian filmmaker Fabrizio Colombo, who has served as an advisor and director for the Zanzibar International Film Festival. With sponsorship from the European Union and Colombo’s technical support, Senga created the Tumenye Sinema, a master class series for Rwandan youth, which often takes place in rural communities. He has also developed several private film production companies in which he employs some of the 400 youth in his training program. 
Meanwhile, Rwanda has a new platform called Zacu on Canal Plus, a local TV channel showing exclusively Rwandan content. 
“Now our products here are in demand,” he says, adding that Rwandan film creators are also getting noticed internationally, and that some of the content his students have produced is getting into festivals in Europe. “It'll be a nice platform for them to flourish.”
The 2022 Mashariki African Film Festival showcased 22 short films directed, produced, shot and edited by youth who participated in Senga’s master classes across the country. While not all of these students will pursue long-term careers in Rwanda’s burgeoning media industry, the event reflected the collaborative spirit and imagination entrepreneurs need to develop innovative SME ecosystems. 
For young filmmaker Philbert Aimé Mbabazi, it sends a positive message about risk taking because, as he put it, “anytime you’re doing something that doesn’t look like what people see as a career, what people see as safe, it’s problematic,” but, he says, he did it anyway, and plans to keep going. 
Another young student, Uwikijije Peace Antoinette, was excited to share how this kind of creative, technical training gives Rwandan women the tools they need to lay the groundwork for building their country’s future narrative.
“It helps them to be more confident,” Uwikijije said as she stood at the front of a theater packed with her fellow film students. Petite but mighty, she exuded a sense of optimism, standing tall in a broad pink hat and clutching a bright yellow African print blazer under her arm. “Shooting the videos and writing the script puts their ideas out to the public.” 
Do you have an established startup making a social impact in areas such as youth, women and the environment in Rwanda? Renew Capital’s Kigali-based staff would be glad to discuss training and investment opportunities. Visit this link to find out more. 
Want to know more about Renew Capital's last decade of impact investing in East Africa? Check out our 2021-2022 Impact Report. 
Renew Capital is an Africa-focused impact investment firm that backs innovative companies with high-growth potential. Renew Capital manages investments made on behalf of the Renew Capital Angels, a global network of angel investors, foundations and family offices who seek financial returns and sustainable social impact. For the latest on investing in Africa, subscribe and follow us at our social links below.

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