Clarisse Iribagiza was born on 28 January, 1988. From an early age, her parents urged her to set clear goals for her life and their encouragement, she has said, made her really ambitious. While still an undergraduate at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology where she studied Computer Engineering and Information Technology, Iribagiza conceived the idea of her mobile technology business. However, it was after spending six weeks at the Accelerating Information Technology Innovation program of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), that she was able to grasp the practical knowledge to achieve her ambition.

In 2010, she set up Hehe Limited, a software development company that enables businesses and organisations to reach their markets and audiences through easy and affordable platform. Hehe’s software enables customers to give feedback to companies and government agencies through text messages. The messages are recorded for review on a dedicated website, this article on Medium explained.

The need the company was trying to meet, Iribagiza said in an interview with Wired, “was the lack of relevant information for ordinary Rwandans”. This amazing innovation did not come to be through the use of a magic wand though.

“It was a lot of experimenting for us — we tried out so many ideas and at the end of it all we learned how to build mobile information systems — basically endless databases of relevant information and build applications on top of that.” she added.

Clarisse Iribagiza receiving an award. Photo: Kinyarwanda.com
Clarisse Iribagiza receiving an award from the First Lady Mrs Jeannette Kagame. Photo: Kinyarwanda.com

Since its establishment, the company has invested in research and training of young Rwandans to build their capacity in information technology and entrepreneurship. Hehe runs a programme where it trains high school students in ICT skills, critical thinking and creating solutions for their communities. It also works with the Girl Hub Rwanda on the NiNyampinga project aimed at motivating thousands of Rwandan girls to achieve their goals.

In 2011, in collaboration with other ICT entrepreneurs, Iribagiza started iHills, an association of Rwandan youths in information and communications technology. The association mentors aspiring tech entrepreneurs and helps them facilitate access to finance and markets. The ultimate goal of iHills is to make Rwanda a tech hub.

“I am pretty sure we would be seeing innovations with patents coming out of this continent and Rwanda,” she told The Guardian, Nigeria. “We would be seeing women that are part of policy making on the continent in the tech space and this would happen. The question is when and how soon that happens than it is going to happen.”

In the five years since she started her company, Iribagiza has garnered numerous accolades. In 2012, out of 24 young people from East Africa that competed in ‘Inspire Africa’, an entrepreneurial television show, she won the grand prize of $50,000. Of course, she invested the money in her business.

Clarisse Iribagiza. Photo: newvision.co.ug
Clarisse Iribagiza. Photo: newvision.co.ug

The following year, she addressed African presidents at the Transform Africa Summit in Rwanda, representing young Rwandan entrepreneurs. At the sideline of the summit, young entrepreneurs were given the chance to pitch their ideas to a panel of moderators and Iribagiza and her team won the $7,500 prize. In the same year, the Imbuto Foundation, a project of the Rwandan First Lady, Jeanette Kagame, conferred on Iribagiza its Celebrating Young Rwandan Achievers (CYRWA) Award for her entrepreneurial accomplishments.

2014 saw her named among 100 global thinkers by Lo Spazio della Politica (LSDP), an Italian think tank. And most recently, Forbes Magazine named her among 2015 Africa’s most promising young entrepreneurs under 30.

By her own admission, the environment in Rwanda is quite conducive for young people to start business, but noted that there are a few challenges, “from striving to be taken seriously in an industry dominated by western companies, to growing our team to execute the vision that we have…”

To overcome these challenges, Iribagiza advises aspiring entrepreneurs to understand the opportunities in relation to the cost of running the business, stay focused, build the right relationships and work on leadership skills.

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