Until he was 14, Henri Nyakarundi didn’t know he was a refugee.
His family had fled to Burundi following the growing tensions in Rwanda that eventually led to the ugly 1994 genocide.
From an early age, Henri had always fantasized about living in the United States and chasing the American Dream. For him, the US was his life’s ultimate lottery ticket and nothing else mattered. He wanted to leave Africa as quickly as he could.
In 1996, shortly after re-sitting his high school exams, the opportunity came — he was finally granted a US visa. In July that year, he was on a plane bound for the US, the land of his dreams.
A few weeks ago, Henri reached out with his memoir, My African Dream. We had stumbled on his name before but didn’t quite know what to expect from the book. An attempt to distract ourselves to sleep by skimming through the book around 10:30 pm. that night turned out to be a gripping experience that held us hostage until about two in the morning.
After spending ten years in America — a period that included some jail time, being homeless, and eventually building a very successful trucking business — Henri packed his bags and headed back home to Africa.
Why would anyone leave the US, especially after having got a taste of the elusive American Dream? In his book, Henri gives a brutally honest and inspiring account of how he chased, reached, and ultimately traded in the American dream he craved since childhood for an African dream that has totally surprised him.
Since he returned to Africa, he has built a remarkable technology business that thrives in Rwanda, a country that — just like Henri — has risen from the ashes to become a sensational and inspiring African success story.
In this exciting interview, Henri talks about some of the most important lessons on his journey from chasing the American dream to building an African dream. He also dishes out powerful and eye-opening advice to entrepreneurs and people in the diaspora looking to succeed in business on the continent.
This is certainly one of the best interviews we’ve done in a long time.
Here’s the full text:
As a young person, you were very eager to leave Africa to chase the American dream in the USA. How did that go?
Well, that is the whole premise of the book actually. I was very naive about what the United States was all about. The USA ended up being the hardest country I ever lived in.
My favorite show growing up in Burundi was the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and I thought everyone in the USA lived like that. When I moved there, I was in Atlanta, Georgia. For the first time I saw homeless people in America. I had to call my mum to tell her about it; that is how shocked I was.
I struggled a lot in the States — I was homeless at some point, spent two days in jail — but I also learned a lot. I went there as a boy and living in the USA made me a man. All the challenges I encountered made me who I am today.
But the fundamental lesson I learned living in America is that wherever you go, you will find challenges; they may be different but no country is perfect.
For example, the race issues that exist in the USA were a shock to me. But I did not quit, I kept fighting for my dream of being an entrepreneur. It took 10 years for me to build my first successful business in the US, yet I was not fulfilled as a person.
These days, many smart, young Africans are keen to leave the continent to ‘greener pastures.’ How do you think we can turn the tide?
We need to share positive narratives; we need to control our own narratives and share more of our stories in Africa.
Social media is a game changer now, and traditional media no longer controls all the information; more African success stories need to be shared, and it is happening.
I remember clearly, when I decided to go back home, but the news I was watching about the continent made me question my decision at times. I remember watching certain parts of the news, then I would call a friend in Burundi or Rwanda to confirm the news stories I saw and they always used to tell me, “do not worry they are exaggerating.”
It was when I came back, and people in the US started asking me the same thing that I realized how the media is creating an “Africaphobia”, and unfortunately, we buy into it.
We give so much credibility to international news media, instead of focusing on our own media channels from the continent.
The second thing I would say is, some people in the African Diaspora spread this negative media too, to discourage others from going back and I am not sure why. I remember when I shared the news with my friends, some had a negative reaction to it, maybe they wanted to project their own fear to others… who knows.
It is hard for someone who spent over 10 years in another country to just pack up and return to a place they used to call home. The unknowns and uncertainty are usually a deterrent.
Of all the opportunities that you saw in Africa, why did you choose to focus on a solar business?
When I decided to come back home, I looked at two sectors that I believe presented the most opportunities: the agricultural sector and the energy sector.
However, I saw more applications that I could use with solar technology. ARED is not an energy company, we are a technology-for-social-good company. However, we want to bring technology to low-income areas like the rural or semi-urban areas where you need power; that is the energy component to our business.
A lot of the time, we develop solutions to solve one problem. But we were the first company to develop a one-stop-shop smart solar kiosk platform that can charge phones, sell digital services and provide WIFI connectivity solutions.
I truly believe the next biggest economic opportunity in Africa, besides the agricultural sector, is connectivity. And this has become our focus now.
However, my mindset has shifted a little with the issue of global warming; access to clean water will become the biggest challenge the world will ever face.
What were the biggest challenges you faced with starting, running, and growing the business?
The three key challenges I would say is first, finding technical talent in software engineering. This is still a huge challenge for us.
We still outsource our product development abroad due to the lack of access to talent in Africa, and the pool is too small because the demand for tech talent in Africa is higher than the supply. The engineers we have on the continent are extremely expensive. And what I mean by talent is someone that has extensive experience in a certain field.
While we have the brain and manpower to close this gap, unfortunately, most African governments do not spend a lot of resources to develop human capital. If you look at China for example, a large percentage of their GDP went into developing engineers, and after 30 years, now they export technology.
The second challenge is access to funding. The culture of innovation is new on the continent, but can you imagine that in East Africa, for example, no government provides any grant program to support R&D?
Seed funding is still a distant conversation. The funding ecosystem is very poor; we push startups to get loans to build businesses which is the worst idea. Most grants you find on the continent are financed by foreign countries, and many of these grants are not really designed for African innovators.
The last challenge I would say is our tax laws that are inadequate for startups.
Can you imagine that small companies pay the same amount of labor taxes as a large corporation? In most African countries, we have punitive tax laws that focus on collection, and not allowing SMEs to flourish.
It would be possible to maximize the impact of Africa’s informal sector if we had more progressive tax laws. The challenge is we adopted foreign tax laws for an African landscape and that cannot work.
What is the most unexpected feedback you got from the market before or after you launched your product?
The craziest feedback I got was that I was going to get killed because some people could not believe that we developed this technology and we owned it.
I was told that, and I quote: “the white man will kill you if they find out.”
Others thought the product was from China, and many others just did not believe we could develop something that advanced in Africa.
Negative mindsets and self-hate are the biggest challenges Africa faces and it needs to be addressed.
We keep importing experts from abroad. We keep going abroad for medical checkups. As long as we do not build the confidence and pride of our own citizens, we won’t be able to claim true independence.
But, I want to clarify that not all the feedback I got was negative. Some people did appreciate what we are doing as a company.
If you had to go back to sometime in your entrepreneurship journey, where would that be, and what would you change?
My entrepreneurial journey started when I was about 14 or 15. I used to resell stuff to my friends and I remember one time, I resold a bike my dad had bought me at a higher price, gave him the money and kept the difference.
I always used to hustle, but I started taking this entrepreneurial journey seriously when I got to the States. I remember reading this book called Think and Grow Rich, and that changed my whole perspective about being self-employed.
I grew up with the same orientation as most African kids: academic education was the key to success. You go to school, graduate, get a job and work there till retirement. But that was not for me.
I would not change anything to be totally honest. The reason I became good in business is because of all the failure I encountered that really made me the person I am today.
My mindset when I was getting started was that entrepreneurship was about getting rich and making money. But later on, I finally understood it is about solving problems.
I used to think there was a shortcut to success, so a lot of the businesses I used to do were those get-rich-quick schemes: invest this amount and you get 3X in 7 days. After losing money, I had to wake up and got smarter.
For me, failure was my key to success.
What’s your single most important advice to entrepreneurs who want to start a business in Africa?
Patience. Even though Africa is the land of opportunity, the old ways are still ingrained in a lot of us. Politics, corruption in some countries — we still have the old oligarchs running the continent that still believe only the West can help Africa.
Most youth or members of the Diaspora returning to Africa to catch the so-called ‘new wave of opportunities’ often get disappointed because, on the ground, things still do not move as fast as they should.
Patience is the key; to build a business you have to start with the foundation. Rushing will not get you anywhere but will bring you frustration and stress.
If you need a license and it is not happening fast enough, just take a deep breath and work smart. Africa is a slow wheel to turn, so you have to be careful not to let your impatience get the best of you.
On what media are you most active. Where can anyone reach out to you?
It is very easy to reach me; I am available on all major social media accounts: Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Instagram under Henri Nyakarundi, and most of my contact information is right there.
On Youtube, I do in-depth videos to really teach young entrepreneurs key strategies on raising money, expanding on the continent, and more.
African Entrepreneurs creating Jobs and Employment in Their Communities – Olasupo Abideen
Olasupo Abideen ” My greatest achievement is being a 25yr old employer who employs 35 people and has trained 475 Others” as one of african entrepreneurs.
I am a 25year old one of Nigerian african entrepreneurs, founder/CEO of OPAB Gas with over 6 years of transnational experience leading and working with diverse teams to facilitate youth empowerment, development projects and youth involvement in policy. I am a UNESCO ESD Young Leader, a WEF Global Shaper and a Fellow, Young Africa Leadership Initiative.
Since receiving the $5000 Seed Capital in December 2018, my Company has created employment for thirty-five (35) University undergraduates (through our Work Student and Student Ambassadorship Program), opened ‘four (4) new Gas stores’, and trained ‘four hundred and seventy-five (475) unemployed youth and corps members‘ (through our #Gasprenuer Initiative). As a means of giving back to the community, we have also helped ‘five (5) kids’ return to school through our #StreetToSchool programme for our Community.
My Humble Beginnings
I watched my mother walk long distances to gather firewood and buy coal to cook for my family in my growing up years in my village in south-west Nigeria, where I was raised. It wasn’t peculiar to my mother; this was commonplace for all families. We all knew it wasn’t safe. We knew that if it made them this uncomfortable, there was no way it was safe, but we didn’t know there were alternatives. After all, this is how our grandparents and their parents before them lived.
It bothered me to see my mother’s red eyes, and the wet eyes of other women in our rural community bothered me a lot. Even though I did not know until recently that cooking with firewood is equivalent to smoking 400 cigarettes per hour, and is one of the three causes of mortality among women and children, I knew there had to be something I could do, but I couldn’t figure it out; or better put, I did not have enough education nor access to information to figure it out.
The Idea to start my business came from a need that I identified and solving that problem meant a business opportunity. As a student of chemistry at the University of Ilorin, I was exposed – through volunteering – to MDGs (and subsequently SDGs), and I took a keen interest in clean, renewable energy, that could be used instead of orthodox fuelling options, and one of them was Liquefied Petroleum Gas.
After a long time of advocacy for SDGs, as an undergraduate, my SDGs advocacy and youth development organization, Brain Builders International, signed an agreement with the Kwara State University’s Community Development and Entrepreneurship Centre to train young Nigerians african entrepreneurs on the Sustainable Development Goals, their benefits, and ways toward actualisation.
I noticed that every time I took the 55min trip to Kwara State University to facilitate these training sessions, I would encounter students carrying gas cylinders: either going to fill Gas in Ilorin or coming back from Ilorin after filling Gas. I later learnt that the only cooking gas supplier in the community at that time was exploiting the students by using a manual scale that could be manipulated and also selling at a rip-off price.
Solving the Problem
In 2017, I took a soft loan from a friend, added some of my own moneyand after conducting intense market research, filing necessary papers, and satisfying ethical and professional standards, we opened our first OPAB Gas station. The services we offered hinged on three things; convenience, safety, and trust. Students could now focus on academics, as we did not only sell gas at the standard rate, but we also offered pick-up and delivery services. We used safe measures alongside a digital scale to address the issue of trust. Within three months we had broken even.
The TEF Intervention
In 2018, I applied for the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme but was only selected for the GIZ list to be one of the 210 beneficiaries of the training and $5000 funding. The training provided by the foundation on business planning, financial intelligence, scalability, among others could only be likened to a mini MBA.
Immediately after the training myself and my team we started discussing how to dominate the market in which we operate and capture new markets.
With the seed capital, we were able to expand our business.
Our Growth and Milestones as one of african entrepreneurs
- Expansion: We have expanded the business to 6 stations in two townships to target the student populations and made over $25,000 since receiving the seed capital from the foundation.
- Employment: Staff strength – 2 (in 2017), 35 people (2019).
- Gas on Wheels: We now own delivery vans and offers delivery services
- Digitization: We now take orders on the business’ website in both cities where we operate.
- Introduced Customer Loyalty service
- Health safety card – to educate users about safety measures.
- Customer reward: Points reward system.
- Holiday Promos
- we also have a few impact initiatives that we run.
- OPAB Gas has trained 450 Youth Corps members, unemployed youth in Kwara State on the economic merits of the Gas economy and the many opportunities that abound in the sector.
- In line with the UN SDGs, OPAB student work experience – an internship programme where we train students. During this internship, they work on Sundays for a stipend. They then receive N10,000 for every 1000kg of gas sold.
- OPAB gas student ambassador scheme – delivery service.
The vision for OPAB Gas has always been to solve energy availability and ease of use for everyone across Nigeria so we are constantly working on ways to reach out to more Nigerians.
Our OPAB telemetry solution will allow people to monitor and manage their gas usage, notify them when it is almost finished, connect them to the nearest gas stations and pay for gas with existing mobile money applications.
Phone call/WhatsApp: 07068775529.
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