Boosting Businesses in Rwanda

Pass It On:Atlanta business founder Ben Harris works with young Rwandans.

One day last April, Ben Harris 03C found himself stepping off a plane and out of his comfort zone. Harris had journeyed from his hometown of Atlanta to serve as a mentor for young Rwandan entrepreneurs, working with a new organization called the African Entrepreneur Collective (AEC).

During his six-and-a-half-week stay, Harris helped with a range of internal projects for AEC, but focused most on his work at Alliance High School, where he served as a mentor helping to rehabilitate the computer lab and business curriculum. Although he was nervous initially, Harris, the founder of HobNob, says he was gratified that his efforts seemed to have a positive effect, particularly because the Rwandans he worked with “held any opportunity to learn in such high value.”

It’s that drive to succeed that AEC hopes to harness as it expands through Rwanda and other African countries in the coming years. Founded in summer 2012, AEC works with Rwandan youth entrepreneurs to help build their businesses and, in the process, create jobs for others. The program’s goal is five hundred new jobs in the next three years. Since the 1994 genocide in which an estimated five hundred thousand people were killed, the Rwandan economy has struggled to recover and 45 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line. With more than 60 percent under twenty-five years old, the young demographic targeted by AEC is perhaps most in need.

Harris became involved with AEC through friendships and connections formed at Emory. Tanya Das 02B attended graduate school with AEC’s founder, Julienne Oyler, and shared her excitement about the project with both Harris and Genevieve Ward 02C 15MBA. Soon all three were on the ground in Rwanda.

Rwandans are “not only an incredibly welcoming community, but they’re incredibly curious,” Das says. “To me, what was very striking was seeing how far they’ve come from the insane history they just experienced.”

Ward, who was in Rwanda for three months, was partnered with a shoe manufacturer, helping the small business owner create a larger scale brand and get some “buzz” going. “It was nice that we weren’t just going over and creating infrastructure or putting a Band-Aid on the situation, but were actually empowering individuals,” she says. Whether the harrowing, helmetless ride to work every day on the back of a motorcycle, or the scale of existing development in the country, surprises greeted them daily. “The sense of excitement and vibrancy is something I’ve never really experienced anywhere else.”

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