Rwanda sees rapid progress in education using mobile phones

Entrepreneur Renatus Mwanje spent his days taking mobile phone calls from Chinese customers who wanted to learn English. At night, he went to classes in marketing and financial literacy. In the last few years,…

Entrepreneur Renatus Mwanje spent his days taking mobile phone calls from Chinese customers who wanted to learn English. At night, he went to classes in marketing and financial literacy.

In the last few years, Mwanje has expanded to more than 20 schools through the help of technology from PaaNix, a Washington nonprofit that offers development consulting and coaching to Rwandan microfinance institutions, legal aid clients and underserved urban populations.

Mwanje is now providing pre-professional education and financial literacy to about 10,000 young students. He has doubled the number of schools in the past three years, despite the fact that Rwanda is considered a middle-income country. That is because, as with many such programs, PaaNix’s offline courses take off first in places that can’t access computers. But as data increases and smartphones become more ubiquitous, Mwanje said he expects his numbers to rise.

“We are not doing this to make ourselves rich,” he said. “It’s about giving education to people who will in the long run help themselves.”

But such services aren’t available only in urban centers, said Philip Embe, founder and president of PaaNix. More than half of his programs serve rural areas. “We want to get our core markets to expand and have some diversity,” he said.

PaaNix was founded in 2006 to train women and girls in entrepreneurship as a way to break the poverty cycle. Embe, a former journalist, established the nonprofit while living in Rwanda, where the Hutu government was accused of torture and mass killings during a campaign to wipe out the Tutsi minority. For him, there was a very clear connection between the oppression his country faced during that time and the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide: Women were left out of the public sphere, including the financial sector.

About a decade later, PaaNix provides training, business counseling and subsidized loans to women small-business owners in more than 80 villages throughout Rwanda.

These women tend to be located at the bottom of the economic pyramid. “If you are just starting a business and you need money, you’re a poor woman,” Embe said. “And for many of these women it’s very hard to access traditional banks that say that they are for men.”

Embe says he is trying to fix this by providing women with banking tools and the incentive of being paid back if they succeed. The transition is even harder for TajiNsile Kiza, who runs a one-room stall selling bananas in an area called Muvura Ruvinya.

“My mother started making profit from this business, so I followed her,” Kiza said, smiling. “She always tells me, ‘You can go any where you want,’ but I don’t want to travel.”

After spending a year in a vocational training center learning to run a business and participate in the formal economy, Kiza said she is now running her own small shop and is getting paid by her customers.

“If I was just learning English, then I would be borrowing money to survive,” she said. “But now I make money from running my own business.”

At the downtown Kumaranji building in the South End of Kigali, a demonstration project called Eyele, which translates to “basic,” taught a group of students how to run a profitable braille design business.

One by one, 12- and 13-year-old girls put up their hands as they decided what to purchase with an overhead projector and how much to charge.

“How much are you charging today?” a coach asked. “What can I pay you?”

“Business is not free,” one of the girls said. “If you start collecting money from people you have to work hard to collect it. If you stop working hard you will not make money and therefore you will not make money.”

“But you can’t let money worry you,” another student interjected. “It can’t make you lose your heart. Money can buy things and keep you alive, but you have to be able to find happiness in your heart.”

Gatlin Aveles, who is also in her teens, said she made her first braille design last year. Although she is not making a lot of money, she is interested in the business and wants to make money so she can save up and buy more computers.

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