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 to me with his memoir, My African Dream. I had stumbled on his name before but I didn’t quite know what to expect from the book. An attempt to distract myself to sleep by skimming through the book around 10:30 p.m. that night turned out to be a gripping experience that held me 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 I’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 3 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.
What do you have to say to those people who say there is no such thing as an African Dream?
I rarely would waste my energy on non-believers, but if I had to reply, I would tell people to look at the data and how the world is fighting to get a piece the pie.
We have Chinese, Americans, and Europeans fighting for influence, resources and market share in Africa.
Africa will be a 2-billion-person market in a few decades; startups are popping up all over the continent with brilliant ideas to solve key issues.
Eight out of the top 10 fastest growing economies are in Africa. The continent is one of the very few places where you can find 10% returns on a savings account. In the US or Europe right now you will be lucky if you can get 1% returns.
The problem is that we do not control our own narrative, and our success stories do not get as much publicity as the negative stories. And the worst part is we Africans buy into this negative narrative and perpetuate the cycle.
The sad part is that a lot of the non-believers are Africans themselves.
I have been mentoring startups now for the last 3 years, and I can honestly say I have seen the most amazing ideas and the most brilliant minds from young men and women. The African Dream is very much alive.
As a person who lived outside Rwanda as a refugee for a long time, how do you feel about the country’s new status as a role model and shining economic success story for all of Africa?
First I can say it is great to have a country you can call home. I did not know for a long time we were refugees until I was a teenager.
I mean, I did not live as the traditional refugee you see portrayed in the media. Although I was a Rwandan refugee, I actually lived a middle-class life and went to private school in Burundi.
I remember clearly when I knew we were refugees; it was when it was time to travel and my sister and I had to carry UNHCR refugee passport documents.
I was maybe 9 or 10 and we were going to Nairobi to visit some family members. We spent four hours at the airport, because for us to get in, someone had to sign documents as guarantor that we would leave the country (Kenya) within two weeks.
The first time I went to Rwanda was in 1996, two years after the genocide, and the country was still in disarray. I was there for only a month, then I left for the USA.
The second time I had a chance to go back was in 2001, and the country was starting to change.
The third time I came back was in 2008, and the capital city Kigali had completely changed. The country had just launched a one-stop-shop office for people to register their businesses. At that time, it took only 48 hours to register your company.
Today, it is done in four hours. I was, and I am still, blown away.
It was at that time that I realized it was time for me to go back home. All this development and economic growth that Rwanda is experiencing brought two things to me and I am sure a lot of other people.
First, a renewed pride of being Rwandan. We were no longer just defined by our past and by the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, but now we have become a destination country; one of the safest and cleanest countries on the continent, building the largest conference center in the region etc.
Second, the fact that Africa is capable of achieving greatness without the help of outsiders’ resources. After the genocide, no one would have bet that Rwanda would rise from the ashes, myself included.
When I left the region, I had already decided I would never come back. Yet, I came back, and I think that the key for Africa to rise is simple: we need great leadership.
Africa needs people who have vision, and who have a deep love for their country, without selfish interests. I am glad to see that the youth across the continent are starting to demand those things now.
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.
- By John-Paul Iwuoha