After several invitations by brother Che, I finally visited Norrsken campus, at former ‘Ecole Belge’ downtown: What a space!
“Norrsken” is a foundation dedicated to helping entrepreneurs solve the world’s greatest challenges: poverty, famine, mental health, pollution, climate change… It raised venture capital funds and manages an accelerator program for startups in co-working spaces in Stockholm and Kigali. Norrsken was created by Niklas Adalberth, one of the founders of the fintech company Klarna.
It’s an appealing venue, compliant with the city’s green directives. Solar powered at 80 – 90%, with trees and gardens between buildings, an efficient management of space and natural light, Norrsken campus is where the ‘Kigali amendments on climate change’ come to life!
It is said that architects design thinking and way of life; my friend Amin even preaches that ‘Design is empathy’; he is right, that building is empathetic.
I met young people; plenty of them, all with a solution. One designing a solution in healthcare, another, a solution in agriculture, in IT, marketing; I met many young people indeed, each one with a solution.
I didn’t meet anyone with a problem: all have solutions: For Rwanda, for Africa and for the world; A maxim in Kinyarwanda goes ‘Intore ntiganya, ishaka ibisubizo’. Nari mubisubizo bisa; nahuye n’intore nyazo: Today I went in the venue of solutions.
If I was younger, not overdressed – as lawyers typically do, I’d have sat down and join the youngsters in their craft. But I couldn’t stay long, and on my way out I was greeted by a beautiful young lady, in her twenties, who also works there.
- what do you do here, I asked;
- I fund innovation, she replied.
That’s right! The young lady manages a fund that gives money to all the ideas that come out of that place.
- we don’t only give funds, we incubate, we train, we support the business until it matures, she said to me…
In my previous life in NGOs, I saw people with projects hiring ‘resource mobilisers’ to run after ‘donors’. In the entrepreneurship sector, I learned that it is the other way around: funds chase after innovators – As it should be!
Earlier, Amon, the young Kenyan who just graduated from African Leadership University in Kigali, was giving me the tour. He showed me a sign of another foundation, partnering with Norrsken to fund solutions in healthcare. He explained that the last phase of the project would be to establish a fund in Kigali that finances all who spring out of the genius lot.
But the young lady’s fund didn’t wait for the project’s completion. With a first-mover’s advantage and a stash of cash, where else could she have found talent and possibly the million dollar solution, if not at “Solutions Central”, at Norrsken, Kigali?
- I am still debating whether to go back to Nairobi or stay, but this place is encouraging me to stay in Kigali, Amon said.
I was back in school, in a beautiful campus, only this time, young people don’t learn alone or learn from teachers. They learn from each other, innovate together and the ideation is thus enhanced. I was impressed by the joint working spaces called ‘Flex’, as though to encourage the youth to flex their upper muscle: the brains! ‘Flex’ are designed to foster collaboration, the people in them bouncing ideas at each other to innovate better solutions. I was pleased by the round wooden lounges in-between buildings, where I sat for a moment, to chat with a young tech, barely twenty two years of age..
I felt happy about the concept of creating the mini-Silicon Valley in Rwanda, after one in Sweden. Located next to the Car Free Zone, it isn’t hard to imagine why Kigali, of all African cities. Indeed isn’t the city itself designed as one green startup ecosystem? the campus blends into nature…
The space provides optimum conditions to think and create. Even though Kivu Noir has set up a ‘stand’ here, black coffee and snacks are free in the Flex. There are free-at-use fridges and ovens for packed lunch. But those with a sophisticated taste in coffee, who fancy a “creamy caramel mocha”, go to Kivu Noir..
Renting a space isn’t expensive: 80 dollars a month..
- We charge some money to make sure kids don’t just come here to hang out, without innovating. Those who booked closed offices are coming out of them to work from the joint flexes so they can benefit ideas from others. It is convenient because we have small ‘skype rooms’ for when they need the peace and quiet, Che told me.
Che ‘Guevara’ Rupari is the adult in the room. His job is to make sure the young stars don’t miss anything, or find distraction that would interrupt their thought process; in this playground for creatives, he keeps them focused…
When I was young and romantic, I used to fall in love with spaces like these and the people I met in them, for the poet says: “In order to make good art, you must find a muse”, or as Michelangelo puts it, after sculpting ‘David’: “I saw the angel in the marble and curved until I set him free”. Here it seems, it is the muses that are attracted by the piece of art that is Norrsken, Kigali. But on that my fears are appeased, for the best is yet to come…
In their own words: “Norrsken is a US$200 million tech fund, backed by an international network of 30 unicorn founders, that will invest in exceptional entrepreneurs building Africa’s new tech giants.” What I saw today, is just phase one of a bigger Norrsken vision – the last phase of which is being curved by a crazy artist I know. I may have spoken too early…
Auspiciously, Norrsken – Kigali has healing powers too. See, I had given up on writing about love and romance. How was I to know, that the lady in question wouldn’t get my humor? To those who asked, I answered that it was safer to write about Rwandan politics in Kigali, than it was to broadcast things of my heart..
This place might have revived that soft spot. Author Jean Paul Kimonyo used to call me: ‘the romantic of Rwandan politics’, but he hasn’t called me that lately. He had despaired that in time, I’d turned into a non-descript pundit, devoid of flavor and punch, like the rest of them. Dr. Kimonyo doesn’t live here anymore, but he will be pleased to know, that I fell in love all over again – although, due to past heartbreaks, I won’t reveal the girl’s name, this time. I learned my lesson…
I was pleased with the building, but also with the idea, that in Africa we are designing spaces that foster creativity and empathy – indeed while the promoter is Swedish, the concept is designed and built by Rwandan architects.
They took the last colonial school in Rwanda and turned it into a Pan-African ideation greenhouse. They’ve created an ecosystem where young people challenge and inspire each other; what a beautiful and vindicating use of space; a historical paradigm shift!
Growing up in Kigali, we found a bar, my agemates and I. After high school, there were no spaces for young people to be young and useful. We’d go through high school doing sports, then learn to drink upon graduation, only to master the habit at University overseas, away from parents’ eyes and curfews. It is only later in professional life that one tries to stop; a tall order for many…
But our city is changing, it has changed. With the advent of the first coffee shops, car free zones and public parks; all with free Wi-Fi, Kigali offers sane and stimulating spaces that are designed to nurture entrepreneurs, problem solvers and leaders of tomorrow..
Young people in the gap year between high-school and university, those who return home after university graduation, all now have things to do and spaces to incubate them.
I will go back! At every chance I get. I will dress down, look young and brilliant, then try to blend in, into the creative community of young Kigalians. I just hope that I’ll have the ideas to match my camouflage, so that no one blows my cover of a business lawyer, passing for a product designer…
Like the ideas of the young people there, the campus is still in construction.
- When it’s finished, we’ll have a big campus fully powered by solar. Amon told me.
- You’ll become energy ‘prosumers’, I thought out loud, explaining the concept of (consumers-producers) to young Amon..
Prosumer! What a good metaphor to describe the space, and the young siblings I met in it…