Field Stories

HubFocus 2: “A series of small experiments” – Creative Entropy Lab, Kigali, Rwanda


In this second edition of HubFocus, we talk to Barrett Nash, co-founder of the Creative Entropy Lab. The CE Lab is based in Kigali, Rwanda, and is motivated by its founders’ commitment to “positively working towards a global equality of opportunity”. Nash and fellow co-founder Pedro Reyonolds-Cuéllar are looking to create “something organic that evolves, able to positively iterate on creative ideas from anyone and anywhere”.  So, let’s find out just how they plan to do it.

What learning and training opportunities does CE Lab offer to its users?

BN: Creative Entropy Lab’s current key initiative, Empowered Internet, is based around increasing hardware accessibility via portable, tablet-based web cafés to areas where there is 3G/4G internet coverage but low access rates, then using these tablets as increased education and income generators.

While just to use these internet cafés as cafés will be an important part of this project, we are more concerned with creating a virtuous feedback loop between low-skill barrier microwork and hacking the skill set together through focused, in-person and digital education so that new users will be able to quickly build the skill set they need to perform this work and generate an income.

The hope is that by creating an accessible, low-barrier income alternative for poor, low skilled users we can create the incentives for an alternative ladder of opportunity, where the allure of increased income will warrant the expansion of skill sets through the educational content we provide.

How does the structure of the lab help with developing and implementing projects such as this?

BN: CE Lab’s structure is based as a hybrid non-profit startup. This means that while we are focused on achieving our altruistic mission, we need to do it by following the lean and disciplined nature that can allow a startup to be successful.

This means that we are focused on making sure that the project has the potential to be financially self-sustaining, which is often a failure point for similar ICT4D projects. However, it is at the micro level where our startup nature sets us apart. While most of the NGO / government / academic ICT4D projects need to work to meet stringent project requirements and deadlines, we are more concerned at CE Lab to work towards a project that meets our mission.

CE Lab is run more as a series of small experiments, each to test our hypotheses, then iterate or pivot positively from learning we take from these experiments. On account of this, our product is evolving, but I think it is for the better since it allows us to positively adapt in the face of real world data.

An example of this would be that in the beginning, Empowered Internet was simply going to be a portable Internet cafe. However, we quickly discovered that it would be difficult to use solely internet access as an incentive to have customers pay to use our cafes so we needed to further develop our model. After analyzing a number of different approaches, some of which we hope to include in our model at a more mature date, we settled on using the tablets as a platform for increased education and income, since we discovered that if a user is making money they are far more likely to pay the usage fee that needs to exist to make this model sustainable.

DbsG_sBSuIg7bqP7-aE4EKM-YuMo2igo8JgCGCX_NYUHow do you see labs such as CE Lab combatting youth unemployment, and underemployment, in Rwanda?

BN: In my opinion, youth unemployment, coupled with aging populations, in China and the Global North is the greatest medium term problems facing the world today. I think that much of the developing world suffers from a similar blight, that what is supposed to be the opportunity of a young and growing work force can be squandered or even turn violent.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Companies are hungry to hire, just the school system in countries like Rwanda is producing graduates whose skill set are unfortunately usually inadequate to compete at a national level or international level.

We seek to address this by taking advantage of the universal nature of the internet, an increasing division of labor of digital work and the low income demands of Rwandese to create work opportunities for young unemployed and underemployed Rwandese. Our goal is to create digital and in person training programs that can intuitively and very quickly train a new user to the point where they can generate a basic income and then allow them to continuously improve their skills and increase their income. We are trying to target as specific training as possible, with the hope that within 10-15 hours a new user will be at the point where they are generating some income.

What makes this a unique opportunity for the young unemployed is that it is not dependent on the limitations of their locality, rather, it is only dependent on having internet access and the skill set to take advantage of these online microwork services. In a country like Rwanda, where within 2.5 years 95% of the population will be within a 4G internet coverage zone, this means that anyone who can access the internet and train themselves will be able to make their own employment.

IMG_20140309_150740What makes Kigali a special place for innovators and entrepreneurs?

BN: I love Kigali and am always looking for a chance to sing its praises. What makes it a special place for innovators and entrepreneurs are three things: the livability of Kigali, the visionary leadership of the government and the interconnected nature of Rwanda as a whole.

What the government is doing for the tech and business scene is absolutely worthy of deep respect and admiration. I get to take advantage of what the government has already provided, like setting up a business online in under a day, for free work spaces, world class ICT infrastructure, and then to know that they every day they are working to make Rwanda better and better.

The people themselves are what most makes Rwanda a pleasure to work from. It seems to me like the entire country has come together like one communal sports team to work as a unit to bypass the stigma of the 1994 genocide and be known for something that they can be proud of, their own success. I can’t stress enough the excitement of being in a place where there is this tight interconnectedness and unified determination, it feels like the country is dried wood waiting for the spark of a disruptive idea to take off and transform the society.

Thanks Barrett! We look forward to seeing you in Kampala in May.

Barrett Nash will be giving a presentation entitled “Empowered Internet: Portable Tablet Cafes to Bridge Internet Coverage and Internet Access” at this year’s eLearning Africa conference, in Kampala, Rwanda, May 28-30.



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