In Conversation with Clarisse Iribagiza, CEO of HeHe

HeHe is a supply chain technology company leveraging technology to create an efficient logistics service to enable manufacturers, distributors, and retailers to conveniently reach the end consumer while unlocking access to various goods and services on-demand.

Space in Africa had a chat with Clarisse Iribagiza, the CEO of HeHe, on the scope of their operations and their projections in the industry.

You were recently selected as one of the 15 Fellows for the 2021 Karman Fellowship programme and you are also one of the two Fellows from Africa. How do you think the Karman Programme will help your company gain more traction moving forward?

It started back in 2019 when we began to get more involved in remote sensing and how we utilise space technologies in the downstream sector, particularly the agricultural industry.  We were part of many initiatives, including the Space-Tech Earth Observation Innovation Challenge convened by a couple of entities in South Africa.

And being part of this created more visibility for our work in the space sector. Someone from the Karman fellowship reached out to me and asked if I wanted to apply for this year’s Karman Fellowship Programme. It was an excellent opportunity to put up a great application detailing what we are trying to accomplish with remote sensing and how we are trying to address the challenges in the agriculture supply chain on the continent. After the selection process, I was selected alongside Davis Cook and 13 other individuals from different parts of the world for this year’s Fellowship.

The Fellowship programme allows us to increase our reach beyond Africa through networking and knowledge sharing. Also, staying abreast of development in the global space scene is critical to determining the best way to position ourselves globally as a company leveraging space technologies for sustainability.

You started HeHe while still in school. How did your engineering background impact the business?

I was a computer junior at the University of Rwanda when I had the opportunity of participating in an MIT incubation programme focusing on entrepreneurship and mobile application development. During this six-week programme, I connected the dots regarding what I was learning in school and how I could harness that to develop solutions to real-life problems.

I also did journalism for a while, and location friction was something that I found challenging after moving back to Rwanda; it was challenging to find suitable locations for interviews. We also have more significant challenges like lack of street signs coupled with other mobility issues, so I integrated the knowledge I got from the incubation program with my skill set and launched a geolocation company to connect people to products and services they need.

You enable manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers to get their product to consumers smoothly and efficiently; how do you do this?

Our focus is in supply chain optimisation; we have built an end-to-end supply chain platform that has mapped out all the post-production or post-harvest operations processes. In addition, we have made relevant technologies to help with logistics, warehousing, e-commerce, consumer-centred platforms and digital payment. Hence, it is really about linking all these together without necessarily building new technologies from scratch.

Products are about 30% more expensive in Rwanda and other parts of East Africa because of inefficiencies in logistics. In agriculture, post-harvest losses are typical, depending on the type of logistics available at any given time. This could also be solved by having an efficient supply chain from the farm to the consumer. Our goal is to match the demand for farm produce to the supply. We incorporate remote sensing in agriculture to predict yield by monitoring farm operations, educating farmers on their harvest, and planning their logistics to increase productivity.

The HeHe Innovation Academy intends to produce the next generation of innovators in Africa, and a large percentage of your trainees are females. Do you intentionally target young females in Rwanda?

We launched the HeHe Innovation Academy in high schools and universities to allow young people to go through the same programs that we underwent. It is an opportunity for them to get real-life experience about integrating what they are learning to solve real-life problems. We decided that it would be an excellent opportunity to train the talents that we needed and provide the right set of skills from Africa to fit into other organisations with the same goal. We have trained about 470 young people through our Innovation Academy with various programmes and themes around digitisation, e-commerce and agriculture. 

Also, on the gender side, it happened because we devised a way of showing these young girls that women are also involved in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). In recent times, we have targeted high schools and tertiary institutions and focused more on women. We also partnered with Girl Hub to build a digital platform for teenage girls to access reproductive health information.  

The Rwandan first lady recognised you as one of the “Imbuto Foundation’s Celebrating Young Rwandan Achievers”, and you also currently sit on the African Development Bank’s Presidential Youth Advisory group; how has this recognition helped to attract international partners and investors? Can you also share some of your milestones?

These opportunities have created a platform to amplify our work; they have been an endorsement for us. For example, the advisory board positions at the African Climate Foundation, African Development Bank and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) E-Trade for Women Advocacy is a platform for knowledge sharing and engaging youth in several important conservations. 

One of our significant achievements was the establishment of the HeHe Innovation Academy in 2020. Another milestone was the launch of Abundance Village, an initiative that uses remote sensing to optimise the agriculture supply chain. This initiative was birthed during the covid 19 pandemic when the agriculture supply chain was severely disrupted. So, the Abundance Village initiative was born out of this pain and how to secure the agriculture supply chain that contributes significantly to our country’s GDP.

What source of funding is available to you? Which projects are you engaged in presently?

HeHe is a private organisation funded by private investors. A Japanese company initially acquired us in 2017, but we have completed a buyout in January 2021.

We are currently working on several initiatives in the e-commerce and agricultural sector. We are working with the National Agriculture Export Board and the Ministry of Agriculture to ensure that our exporters have access to the global market by providing them with an e-commerce platform and supply-chain technology to trade efficiently with the global market.

We also work with the Ministry of Trade and the Ministry of ICT to create an e-commerce cooperative in Rwanda that’s focusing on lowering the barrier to entry for SMEs to leverage supply chain technology.