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Meet Yvette Ishimwe, Founder and CEO, IRIBA Water Group




hen asked about how is IRIBA innovative startup, Yvette Ishimwe told our team: “We are solving the water problem in a technology-based way”

To find out more about the story of IRIBA, we had a riveting conversation with Yvette Ishimwe, the Founder.

Q: Tell more about yourself and IRIBA

I am Yvette Ishimwe, I am Rwandan and I run a social enterprise called IRIBA Water Group. IRIBA Water Group is a social enterprise based in Rwanda that provides affordable, safe drinking water to communities in need, particularly focusing on low-income people. We’re doing that in Rwanda and also currently piloting our work in the eastern DRC in Goma.

Q: How did you get to know about Jack Ma Foundation’s Africa’s Business Heroes (ABH) prize competition, and what did you do differently to be selected among the Top 10 oustanding African entrepreneurs this year?

Well, I’ve known Africa’s Business Heroes competition since 2019 from its first edition where I even applied – but by that time I had little knowledge of how things had to work in this competition and that it required enough time to prepare my application and some key other things. So I wasn’t selected in 2019, and then in 2020, I didn’t apply. Then I said in 2021 I’m going to apply and give it ample time to prepare my application, make sure that I tell my story in a more clear way, on top of giving it enough time – and I think maybe that’s why I got selected. I’m sure everybody else tried their best, so I don’t know how or what difference I made, but what I know is that I really gave it enough time to prepare my application to tell my story in a much more clear way which has finally got us to this level.

Q: What lessons have you learned from the ABH program?

The ABH program is quite beneficial and I have learnt a lot throughout the different stages. It has a lot of components from the mentorship side of things right from the application stage. There’s a lot of things that have become more clear to me because of that process. You know, answering those questions about your business among other things itself is a learning opportunity. And then after being selected from the top 50, then top 20, up to this point in the top 10, has allowed me the opportunity to benefit from the mentorship program, get feedback from my mentors telling me what I have to change in the business and what I have to improve. I feel that has really helped me to learn a bit more about my own business and how best to present it to others. That’s really the key thing that I have learned from the ABH program.

Q: How do you plan to use the experience and lessons from the program, to impact local business in Rwanda?

The ABH program has given me an amazing opportunity to showcase what we’re doing as a business on top of the funding and various lessons. It’s going to be very practical for me to apply the various lessons learned not only to my own business, but also to share them with other entrepreneurs and startups in Rwanda and beyond.

One of the key lessons from the ABH program is to dream big. I have learned to be fearless when it comes to dreaming big as an entrepreneur. So now in terms of our target market size, I am looking at capturing the entire African market. As an entrepreneur, you need to ask yourself questions like what is the next big market to target? What do we have to do to tap into it? How do we move forward? etc.

Post this competition, I want to focus on that and make sure that whatever we’re doing, we are really approaching a bigger vision than what we already had. So, moving forward, that’s really what I got from the competition which I will gladly share with other startups.

Q: The ABH initiative is ongoing for another 7 years, who is eligible to apply and what tips can other startups take note of to enable them participate next year and in the other upcoming editions?

First of all, this is Africa’s Business Heroes program. They’re looking for those people who are trying their best to make ends meet, run successful businesses not for the purpose of keeping a lot of money in their banks or pockets, but for impacting communities and that should be in the DNA of the businesses. So I think what I would advise other entrepreneurs that are planning to apply for the next editions of the ABH prize is to think of what impact that they’re making in the community through their business, understand it, make it straightforward, and be sure they’re able to tell a concrete story of that impact that they’re making to others. Being able to connect the business objectives with the social impact is very key for the ABH program, and that’s what makes an entrepreneur a hero because they’re making a change in the community. So my advice to them is to be more clear on what kind of social impact they’re making in the community through their innovation.

Q: How do you plan to use your share of the money you will be getting in November this year from the ABH?

First of all, we want to scale our work across Rwanda, particularly our tap and drink innovation in Rwanda, and also expand our operations in the eastern DRC. That’s basically what we are planning to use the funds for. We can’t wait to have this done.

Q: What problem is your business solving in Africa, in Rwanda, or your community?

Well, we’re solving two key problems. The first one is the lack of affordable, safe drinking water for low-income people in Rwanda and DRC. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, up to 319 million people still don’t have access to safe drinking water. In schools, we have millions of children missing lessons because of water-related illnesses as they can’t get access to clean drinking water at school. So what we’re trying to do is build infrastructures in areas where the majority of low-income people are located, giving them easy access to safe and purified drinking water at a cost that they can afford. We also do the same in schools by putting their water ATMs, enabling students to pay a small subscription fee and gain access to affordable safe drinking water thereby reducing the numbers that miss school because of water-related illnesses.

The second problem that we’re trying to solve is unemployment. We are addressing that through a franchise model by putting water ATMs in strategic locations like markets and car parking stations, where we franchise the ATMs to unemployed youth and women, and that gives them job opportunities.

Q: Do you think this is the right time for your startup to solve the problem?

Yeah, it’s the right time to solve this problem because we can’t continue to wait and see more people dying from water-related illnesses. We can’t act like yesterday.

This is an urgent matter as it concerns people’s health and we are therefore committed to doing our best to contribute what we can to solve this problem.

Q: Does your solution fit in the market? (Do people want it)?

Yes, it does. Our solution fits in the market because we’ve been doing this since 2017 and as of today we record a customer satisfaction rate of up to 92 percent. So based on that we are sure people like our solution. We still have a long way to go because we should actually have a 100 percent customer satisfaction rate. But you know, it’s a work in progress, but it’s really something that proves to us that customers like what we’re providing to them. Since 2017, seeing the business and demand growth is proof that people need the solution we’re providing and it’s really relevant to the market needs.

Q: Tell us more about your team, why are you the best to solve this problem?

I have a great team of people with whom we work to reach our goals, objectives, and vision. And the reason why I think we are the best team to solve this is because of our diversified skills and capabilities. We’ve got technicians who are really good at what they’re doing, other team members are really good at business management, marketing, and sales among other things. That kind of diversified skill set and capabilities is what makes our team really strong to tackle this problem that we’re trying to solve

Q: How innovative is your startup? (technological/social innovation).

We are solving the problem with a homegrown kind of solution. Ninety-two percent (92%) of the materials that we use to make up those water ATMS that we install are locally sourced. The fact that we are able to create relevant solutions to the problem that we’re solving using local materials is one key thing that makes our work innovative, sustainable, and more impactful.

Secondly, we are solving the water problem in a technology-based way that makes our management easier, for instance, our water ATMs are automated machines, where people can collect water through a self-service model. Students can order water online and then we can sell, manage, and track progress in how things are working on the ground in real-time through our management system. So that kind of incorporation of technology in our work makes it very innovative and very efficient to manage.

Q: What is the social impact of your startup and what makes you different in the market?

The social impact is that we are creating jobs, we are giving people access to safe drinking water at affordable rates. What makes us different is that we are trying to serve the underserved markets which didn’t have any solution before, so creating the solution for that underserved market is what makes us different

Q: How are you scaling up the startup and how do you measure your success?

We are already scaling up in Rwanda and have started to extend our solution to other countries such as DRC with our ongoing pilot project. We plan to also reach other African countries because the problem of lack of access to clean water is not only limited to Rwanda or East Africa alone. We are targeting other African markets and in terms of success Rwanda is already doing great and DRC is also progressing well.

Q: What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs and new startups in Rwanda?

It is true to never give up and to dream big, but start small. Have big plans and a vision, but narrow it down into small steps – for instance, identify what you can do today to help you achieve that bigger vision. The entrepreneurship road is not always smooth so be patient and persistent until you attain your goals.

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