serial entrepreneur with an affinity for impact-driven business, Henri Nyakarundi founded ARED with technology that applies a simple solution to a widespread problem. The evolution of his company from a tech-based startup to a B2B supplier holds lessons about building partnerships, prioritizing a sustainable business model over tech trends and being adaptable at all times.
When did you know that you were an entrepreneur at heart?
I knew a job was not for me, let me put it that way! I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur when I started working in a sales position on commission. From there, I knew the concepts behind working for a fixed salary or being in control of your destiny. To this day I look at entrepreneurship in the same way: you’re more in control of your destiny, you’re in control of your revenue, and the effort you put in usually equates to what you get out. In the beginning, at least, that’s what really pushed me toward entrepreneurship, and from that day I’ve never looked back.
Where did your success in business begin?
Trucking was my first successful business, my definition of success being that you’re cash-flow positive. There was a huge gap between the time I started entrepreneurship and the time I started my first successful business – close to eight years. Trucking came about by accident, like a lot of my businesses. While I was working for Kinko’s, I met a truck driver who became my good friend. I was working the third shift at night and this truck driver came in to copy his pay stub and we started a conversation. I asked him a lot of questions and from the feedback he gave me, I thought it wasn’t a very hard business. It seemed like a very lucrative opportunity. But of course, the reality was not always exactly that. I started immediately, did my research, registered a company and, in two or three months, I was in the trucking business.
What motivates you?
Back then, the opportunity was financial – I was always looking for businesses with high returns and little investment needed. Those were my criteria back then, and trucking was exactly that. To get a license to get a trucking company, you don’t need to have trucks – you can hire truck owners to operate under your license – so the investment was very minimal, and I just wanted to plug into the industry and build a business around it. Nowadays there’s a lot of innovation in trucking, but back then I was not thinking about innovation. I was just thinking about a business that I can do, that can generate a good amount of money. Remember that before my trucking business, all my businesses had failed, for different reasons. Trucking, in my mind, was my last hope. My family, at that point, was tired of financing what they called “my dreams.” They gave me a talk, like, “maybe entrepreneurship is not for you.” So this was my last chance, basically, and I had no room for error. And it took me a little while to make this business profitable. It took exactly two years – I remember it like it was yesterday – but I made it happen.
You’re from Rwanda, but studied and started your business in the US. What brought you back to start a business in Rwanda?
ARED was born due to certain circumstances that happened in America, the first of which was the financial crash in 2008. By that time I was in trucking and I was in real estate – I had a good amount of cash flow, so I was buying houses – and overnight, all my real estate value dropped by fifty percent. I didn’t get affected too much on the trucking side but my real estate was affected dramatically.
I was also starting to get news of Africa growing – the narrative was changing. I was visiting Rwanda every year on vacation and I was starting to see the changes, with Rwanda already implementing the Rwanda Development Board. All of these concepts were interesting and compelling to me, and they helped me to make the decision that it was time to move back. So I looked at different industries that I could bring value to and ended up deciding between energy and agriculture, but energy was more interesting to me than the agricultural sector.
From my personal experience in Burundi, I could see the growth of cellphones, but unfortunately people were having a huge problem charging those phones. I’d seen that you could charge your phone at airports and thought, well, it would be cool to have charging kiosks in high-traffic areas. In 2009, I put together the concept, and it took three years to develop the prototype. After the first prototype, I moved back home.
My first advice would be to build a model that’s sustainable. Don’t depend on grants, don’t depend on subsidies, because one day or another, when they stop, you’re dead in the water.
What brought about a move into the world of impact-driven business?
My first decade in business, my twenties, I was always focusing on money. Then, when I had my first successful business, I realized that making good money did not bring the joy that I was expecting. I mean, it helped! But I thought I was going to be fulfilled, that I was going to be much happier. But I’d come to find that trucking was not a business I liked, to be honest, and I realized that there had to be something
more than just money. I started reading a lot more about impact at that time and I slowly started shifting into a more impact-focused mindset. That really helped me to mold what ARED is now. I realized that doing for others is much more fulfilling than doing for yourself.
ARED has also evolved dramatically. The initial idea of ARED was phone charging using renewable energy because access to energy was a huge problem, especially in the refugee camps where we operated. It was a good service, but it was not enough to build a sustainable business. We had to evolve and move the business to a more B2B model. We looked at what other services we could bring to better monetize our platform. How could we develop an additional model where revenue would come not from the user but from businesses, organizations and NGOs who value what we’re trying to do? That’s why we’re now more into digital technology, using renewable or clean tech to power the solution. The majority of our revenue comes from digital services.
We built a mini-server on the kiosk that would allow us to provide offline applications like contacts, gaming, surveys and offline payments. What I mean by “offline” is that the user doesn’t need the internet to interact digitally on the platform.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in business?
Building an impact business is the hardest thing I’ve done because most of my other businesses were B2B. B2B and B2C are even more challenging to low-income people because you’re dealing with a different mindset. You cannot just bring a service to low-income people and expect them to adopt it. They don’t necessarily have access to technology and an understanding of it. You have to build a value chain and infrastructure partners. That’s why you see that the rate of failure in that space is massive – most of those businesses are not sustainable. Most of them depend on grants or subsidies.
We now have a B2B model where we provide our technology solution to businesses, so that offsets some of the loss in our impact business. That’s allowed us to build a hybrid business model – “hybrid” for us means that you do an impact business, but you also look at what you can do with your technology in a traditional business that can bring much higher revenue and offset some of the loss that you generate on your impact business. You’re going to generate a loss no matter how great your technology is. Because of the margins and the investment you make on infrastructure, training and more, you’re going to lose some money.
What would be your advice to a young entrepreneur starting a business?
If they’re an impact entrepreneur, my first advice would be to build a model that’s sustainable. Don’t depend on grants, don’t depend on subsidies, because one day or another, when they stop, you’re dead in the water. Build what I call a modular business model. Minimize the footprint on the value chain of your business. Don’t try to do everything: find partners who can help you on that value chain. On the training side, in the refugee camps, we work with NGOs. On the data plan, and on the services we provide, we try to find partners on our value chain. That’s going to minimize your operating expenses dramatically and maximize the potential for revenue.
On the traditional business side, focus more on your business model than on the technology itself. I used to believe that it was the technology that makes or breaks you as a business, but no. The business model is the most important part, especially in Africa. Africa is a very challenging ecosystem because of how fragmented the market is, how taxes are set up, how every country has different laws – you have to have a very, very dynamic business model that is highly modular, where you can make changes very quickly and not have a lot of footprints. We don’t even set up shop in any country anymore. Instead, we work with local partners.
What are your top work essentials?
Partners and clients in new markets to push our expansion plan.
At what age did you found your company?
I was thirty-five when I started ARED.
What’s your most-used app?
What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?
Never give up on your dream, no matter what.
What’s your greatest skill?
Problem solving – always finding a solution to any challenge.
This article is included in Startup Guide Kigali, alongside more founder stories and expert insights. Order your copy now!