5 business lessons from Rwanda for UK SMEs

An entire Rwandese generation was wiped out during the genocide, which means that young entrepreneurs don't have the supportive mentorship of older business owners. Even so, entrepreneurship is thriving in Rwanda, and according to Sandro Macchioli from Designit London, there's a lot that UK SMEs can learn from a cultural exchange.

This summer, Designit, a global strategic design consultancy that creates human-shaped solutions, sent a team of designers to Rwanda. The initiative was set up by East Africa Investments Ltd (EAI), an impact investment company offering supportive capital to entrepreneurs across East Africa. The project was organised by both Designit and EAI to bring support to Rwandan entrepreneurs and help grow their businesses. Once the team arrived in Rwanda, we quickly realised that not only did we have skills to offer, but we also had things to learn from the entrepreneurs there. The collaboration had us re-evaluate what makes us designers, and how some of the things we took for granted are what bring innovative thinking and make collaborating with commercial businesses easier back in the UK.

Taking a step back in time, in 1994 an entire Rwandese generation was wiped out during the genocide. Therefore, young entrepreneurs do not have the supportive mentorship of other elder business owners or the opportunity to learn from those who had gone through what they are going through. Parallel to this lack of mentorship, in Rwanda higher education is focused on technical knowledge, with a lack of support in education for creative thinking. However, the entrepreneurs in Rwanda did not lack creative ideas and were extremely innovative when it came to overcoming obstacles. Essentially the entrepreneurs were shaping their own skills and tools to help grow their businesses.

Rwanda has a large amount of new, innovative businesses and is a thriving hub for start-ups and many of the entrepreneurs had ideas that were very innovative in context to the local economy. As the collaboration started, the Designit team found that many of the clients in Rwanda had similar challenges to the clients they worked for in London. Therefore, we took home a number of tips that will help us overcome our own client challenges. It is important that we all learn a thing or two from how Rwanda’s entrepreneurs are doing business in order to thrive in any market, and here are some tips I wanted to share.

Don’t be afraid of saying you don’t know

Sometimes not always knowing the answer can create new opportunities, new ideas and new ways of working. Don’t be afraid of the unknown or showing you are not familiar with something as this can open doors and new possibilities.

Work on your soft skills

Breaking down barriers in any work situation can be difficult and building consultant/client relationships is hard. When the team arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, they were asking the entrepreneurs to sacrifice a good amount of their time; something that any business owner will know is limited. So to build mutual ground and create rapport aside from purely project related work the team kept initial conversations familiar, asking them about their lives and on one occasion, even arranging a dinner party. Taking the time to make human interactions and breaking away from talking about work all the time, means clients will be more open to listen to you, feel comfortable to make mistakes and show you are a good listener, making them feel that they are able to share their doubts.

Always co-locate when possible

Co-locating with clients is essential to ensure you are familiar with how they work, meet staff and hear stories and spot issues you may not be aware of before. While out in Rwanda the team ensured they spent as much time as possible actually in the businesses, working out of the same office. It is important to take advantage of physical space your clients have and get to really know the client by working closely with them.

Ask the same questions, but differently

Asking tons of questions can get easily lost in our work. Deadlines, assumptions and confidence in understanding of the problem all mean that sometimes we stop questioning things and accept them at face value. Working in Rwanda, an environment no one was familiar with, made the team rediscover the importance of asking the right questions. Questions are a powerful tool as they verbalise thoughts, outline gaps in an idea and push people to look at a problem from a different perspective; allowing people to see the bigger picture and move away from the small details. Next time you come across a problem try asking why as much as possible and ask the same question in three different ways to uncover new solutions.

Be a mentor and share your knowledge

Always leave tools and processes behind, leave the client feeling empowered to do the work without you there. As designers we want the people we work with to take a reuse what you have done. This is how innovations and new ways of working are created.

The trip to Rwanda was not only a great way for us to see how businesses thrive and work to overcome obstacles but it also showed the importance of finding new ways to work – something we hold very dear at Designit. While sometimes we get wrapped up in our everyday roles at work, it is essential that we question our everyday thinking and practice. By reassessing how we work we step out of our everyday thinking and incorporate innovative ideas and skills that enable us to overcome every day hurdles.

Sandro Macchioli is a designer at Designit London.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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