Young Rwandan entrepreneur on meeting President Obama, Mark Zuckerberg

Jean-Bosco Nzeyimana is a happy young man but to describe him simply as “happy” would be an understatement. He is over the moon.

On Friday June 24th, he was part of a five-member high profile panel discussion that involved not only the US president Barack Obama, but as well Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of the social networking site, Facebook.

The panel discussion came as the crowning moment for the just-concluded Global Entrepreneurship Summit that took place at Stanford University in the Silicon Valley in California, US from June 22-24. The summit is a forum that seeks to deepen ties between business leaders, foundations, and entrepreneurs worldwide.

Last year’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit was held in Nairobi, Kenya.

Joining Obama, Zuckerberg and Nzeyimana on the panel were; Mai Medhat, a software engineer from Egypt who started a company called Eventtus, a one-stop online shop for Events organizers.

Also on the panel was Mariana Costa Checa from Peru and the founder of Laboratoria, which gives young women from low-income backgrounds the education and tools they need to work in the digital sector.

For his part, Nzeyimana is the founder and CEO of Habona Limited, a company that produces affordable and eco-friendly biogas fuel from environmental waste. His company is based in Nyamagabe district.

It is this very fact that earned him a place on the prestigious panel discussion with president Obama and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Nzeyimana’s story is quite interesting, and indeed it’s the circumstances of his tough rural upbringing that would later lead him into pursuing the clean energy venture like Habona Limited is. He started the company in 2014.

When we met for this interview on Tuesday evening, he narrated to me the same story that he did share with the world leaders during the panel discussion:

“I was born and raised in the village (Kitabi, in Nyamagabe district) where there was lack of access to electricity and other basic infrastructure. We were close to Nyungwe forest and most children spent most of their time in the forest collecting firewood for their parents instead of going to school and I was one of them.

That was the main challenge there –people did not have access to reliable and clean forms of fuel, and that’s what triggered in me this idea of pioneering waste recycling to produce affordable and clean fuels,” he told me with the unmistakable tone of a self-made individual.

Meeting Obama, Zuckerberg:

“The spirit speaks to something deep inside all of us, no matter who we are, how we look and where we come from.

Look across this auditorium. You are all from different backgrounds and cultures and races and religions. Some of you are from teeming cities while others are from small rural villages, but you have that same spark, that same creative energy to come up with innovative solutions to challenges, and entrepreneurship is what gives people like you a chance to fulfill your own dreams and create something even bigger than yourselves,” remarked President Obama shortly before inviting the panelists onto the stage.

“We live in a time when more than half of the world is under the age of 30, and that means we have to make sure that all young people around the world have the tools to start the ventures they want and help lift entire populations out of poverty, and so many of you are already doing this.

“When people can start their own businesses, it helps individuals and families succeed.  

It can make whole communities more prosperous and more secure.  It offers a positive path for young people seeking the chance to make something of themselves, and can empower people who have previously been locked out of the existing social order -- women and minorities, others who aren’t part of the “old boys” network -- give them a chance to contribute and to lead.  And it can create a culture where innovation and creativity are valued -- where we don’t just look at the way things have always been, but rather we say ‘how could things be’?  Why not?  Let’s make something new,” the president added.  

“Thank you.  It’s an honor to be here,” Nzeyimana started when president Obama gestured to him to take the floor.

“When I was growing up in the rural villages in Rwanda, I used to spend countless hours in the forest collecting firewood for my parents and fetching water.  And that was not just me, but dozens of other children in Africa are facing the same challenges.  They are involved in laborious activities to help their parents just to have a meal, instead of going to school.

So as I was growing up, I kept thinking about something that I can do to help these families have access to other alternative fuels that they can use to replace charcoal that they have been using for many years.  So I came up with an idea of a clean approach, whereby we collect waste and then we turn them into affordable and environmentally friendly products in form of briquettes and biogas that people can then use.  And that is like a green cooking fuel, which can improve health and sanitation in homes.

As we started, it has been two years, and I have employed more than 25 people, giving them permanent jobs.  And we are trying to expand to other areas of the country so that we can continue to improve sanitation, as well as providing these kinds of alternative fuels, which can improve health and mitigate climate change in the country and Africa in general.”

To this, president Obama simply replied; “Excellent.” 

But I am eager to find out what it felt like at a personal level, being up close and personal with Obama:

“Of course it’s an amazing experience,” he says with a goofy grin.

“Did you shake Obama’s hand,” I ask, well knowing it’s a petty question:

“Of course you can’t be on the same panel with someone without shaking their hand.”

Was security not so tight?

“For others, not for us who were with the president,” Nzeyimana retorts with obvious pride. 

Did he at any one time think he would freak out?

“Of course I was nervous the first time I saw him (president Obama), but when he came around he was a good guy. He knows how to treat people so that they feel confident, so he came and we had a conversation on different issues. He asked me about YALI (Young African Leaders’ Initiative) and whether I benefitted from it because it’s also his initiative. Backstage we spent over 40 minutes in a one-on-one session talking and exchanging ideas and sharing a cup of coffee with president Obama and Zuckerberg.”

As part of YALI last year, he received training in Business and Entrepreneurship at Northwestern University in Chicago for three months, and internship on clean energy in the state of Wisconsin’s Department of Energy.

Both the Global Entrepreneurship Summit and the Young African Leaders’ Initiative are the brainchild of President Obama.

“My main purpose was to talk about the potential of young people in Africa and I focused on young people in sub-Saharan Africa.

I also talked about my energy project so that investors who were in the room could see that people from the rural areas of Africa can rise up and be up there on stage having a panel discussion with world leaders.”

But Nzeyimana’s fortunes never stopped at just getting up close and personal with president Obama and Facebook’s Zuckerberg:

“I have a business plan which is now ready and it’s to increase our production capacity and I’m looking for $ 250,000 and on spot there was an organization which was ready to put in $50,000, which is 20% of the total budget. We haven’t yet finalized all the paperwork but those are potential opportunities out there.

I must say this was a huge summit and it provided me with an opportunity to interact with a lot of people, and also to inform the world about what I’m doing to contribute to the environment at a time when climate change is a global challenge. I explained the mitigation measures that I’m taking so that I can also attract potential partners.”

He is all praises for Nyamagabe District administration which gave him the waste management plant free of charge, something which he wouldn’t have been able to afford.

Last year, Nzeyimana was among the Top 10 Young Achievers awarded by the Imbuto Foundation and before that he had won a Youth Connect award for Young Entrepreneurs organized by the Ministry of Youth and ICT