At just 23, Rwandan borrower’s biofuel has propelled him onstage with Obama, and more


On the surface, Jean Bosco seems like any motivated 23-year-old, working late into the evenings, making business calls at all hours, and eating dinner with his laptop open on the table. In reality, however, he is far from the typical millennial. Born in one of the poorest districts in Rwanda in 1993, Bosco has been running his own biofuel business in his home country since 2013.

Bosco is the founder and CEO of biofuel production company HABONA, Ltd., and runs the waste management plant in his home district of over 300,000 people. Over the course of only a few years, Bosco has developed his own biofuel prototype, and is simultaneously transforming much of the town’s trash into household fuel. In the process, his company is providing a more efficient, affordable and environmentally friendly energy source in the midst of a national energy crisis, and is employing up to 35 Rwandans each year.

Bosco has earned both national and international recognition for his business. This past June, he had the opportunity to meet President Barack Obama and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in the United States, and was asked to join them in a panel discussion about small businesses in today’s rapidly changing economic landscape.

“[Obama and Zuckerberg] were able to relate their stories with mine. With this, they gave me hope that regardless of one’s background, nothing is impossible. You can outstrip your yesterdays and become whoever you wish to be in the future.”

“It was a lifetime opportunity,” Bosco said. “It was so emotional because it was hard to believe it was real instead of being a dream.”

Bosco reveled in the opportunity, sitting with Obama and Zuckerberg backstage for hours, discussing how he had ventured into clean energy, the status of entrepreneurship in Africa, and the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), an effort initiated by Obama himself with the aim to invest in Africa’s youth. This same foundation had awarded Bosco a Mandela Washington Fellowship in 2015.

“I knew it was going to be a great experience to be onstage with them, but I was a little bit nervous,” Bosco said. “Something that resonated with me very well was that they were able to relate their stories with mine. With this, they gave me hope that regardless of one’s background, nothing is impossible. You can outstrip your yesterdays and become whoever you wish to be in the future.”

So what motivated Bosco at a young age, despite towering obstacles to entrepreneurship in the poorest districts of Rwanda? How did he forge a path to success despite limited electricity, internet access, and resources in his hometown?

He put in endless hours of energy, hard work, and creativity — and he received a helping hand from strangers on Kiva when it was most needed.

“I didn’t like the way people relied on the forest for firewood and for everything they needed for cooking. They had to go into the forest and cut down trees. We were running out of trees.”

Growing up in Nyamagabe, the youngest child of a large family, Bosco was all too familiar with the implications of the energy crisis in his country. Every day before heading to school, his friends and classmates collected firewood to fuel their family’s wood-burning stoves. Every night, children returned to smoke-filled kitchens where parents had been cooking beans for hours, watching the stove and filling it with charcoal. When he was growing up, many children dropped out of school to help their families, a fact which struck Bosco as upsetting, even at a young age.

Bosco described the difficulties he faced in his hometown over a crackly phone call, “The soil is acidic. We don’t have basic infrastructure. Less than 10% have access to electricity.” In addition to these obstacles, he was educated in a country where only 36% of 15–24 year olds have completed primary education¹. He regularly spent his days as a young boy dreaming up solutions to his district’s struggles. “As I got the opportunity to attend school, I was eager to give back…by thinking about business to employ people and to provide solutions to their problems.”

Bosco studied hard, and when he finished high school, he passed a national exam that earned him a scholarship to attend college in Rwanda for free. According to Bosco, only 10% of students who sit for this exam typically receive any scholarship money.

When asked about his motivations, Bosco explained that he has always been passionate about the environment. “I didn’t like the way people relied on the forest for firewood and for everything they needed for cooking. They had to go into the forest and cut down trees. We were running out of trees.”

Rwanda is a country with few sources of natural gas, causing liquid petroleum gas [LPG], which has to be imported, to be very expensive. Bosco wanted to come up with a way to develop alternative fuel, which could help alleviate the suffering of Rwandans experiencing a massive energy deficit. This was when his idea hit — to turn the country’s waste, which was abundant and poorly managed, into energy. “In fact, coming up with that idea solved other issues — school dropouts and sanitation,” he explained.

Biofuel briquettes created from waste in Rwanda by HABONA, Ltd. — this source of fuel surpasses charcoal in terms of efficiency, environmental impact and affordability.

Bosco explored every avenue he could to create his product. He consulted with friends, colleagues, and people from his business school. He visited the science buildings often, speaking with engineers and assembling a team of experienced professionals. He spent hours doing online research at his university and at internet cafes in his hometown.

When Bosco completed his research, he developed a small prototype in his hometown to test how he would produce the fuel. Then he campaigned and pitched, traveling to different towns, talking to TV stations and locals. He came across many non-believers, but pushed on without pause. “It didn’t affect me a lot because…I had many people who were proud of what I was doing, which just encouraged me to keep going.”

“I caught the attention of many people, because not so many people are doing [biofuel] in Rwanda. I wasn’t trying to copy and paste other people’s examples. I was just trying to format things according to my community’s needs.”

Finally, people started to take notice. Bosco began to win awards and recognition for his ideas. He won the African Innovation Prize in July 2013, made it to the finals of the Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition in February of 2014, and participated in TV reality shows about entrepreneurs that were aired across Rwanda. He was flown to New Delhi, India to participate in the INDIAFRICA forum and was awarded the Top Young Innovator award by the Ministry of Youth of the Republic of Rwanda in 2014.

“When I was starting up,” he said, “I caught the attention of many people, because not so many people are doing [biofuel] in Rwanda. I wasn’t trying to copy and paste other people’s examples. I was just trying to format things according to my community’s needs.”
 

Bosco’s business tackles his district’s mounting waste management problems while also providing a solution to a severe energy crisis in Rwanda.

Bosco’s business tackles his district’s mounting waste management problems while also providing a solution to a severe energy crisis in Rwanda.

As Bosco’s good name was growing at an incredible rate, the Rwandan government offered him a contract to manage the waste treatment facilities in his home district. They would allow him to streamline the plant’s systems and use the method he devised to turn the district’s waste into biofuel in the process. Bosco was overjoyed. He had an incredible opportunity before him: if he could run the facility successfully for 3 months, they would turn operations over to him fully.

But there was a problem. Bosco had invented an amazing product — a briquette that could be used in the household kitchen that increased cooking efficiency, reduced smoke, was environmentally friendly, and could burn for much longer than charcoal without the need for tending. His solution could also help manage the district’s poor waste system by turning their trash into fuel. But despite all of his hard work — his campaigns, his awards, and the promise of his product — Bosco still did not have the funds he needed to succeed at the task. To make things harder, in part because of his age, he found it very difficult to secure a loan from a traditional financial institution.

But in 2014, through a group called the African Entrepreneur Collective, Bosco finally learned of Kiva. “For Kiva…” he said, “Kiva knows that this is just the beginning. And they want to start the journey with you.”

Right away, he took out his first Kiva loan of $5,100 to use as upfront capital to purchase supplies and pay the salaries of his 15 employees for the 3 month period while running the district’s plant. Bosco’s loan was quickly funded by 145 lenders from around the world who believed in his mission. From then on, his business took off.
 

“People, wherever they are or where they come from, they can just come together and support something,” Bosco said of Kiva. “These loans were very, very helpful.”

Bosco strongly believes in the power of small businesses to impact development. “I can see the importance of a lot of small businesses in Rwanda, and I can see the number of people that those small businesses are employing […] there is a huge potential in them.” Bosco explained. A Kiva loan, he said, “can help an entrepreneur to build traction so that he can then be able to attract some more investors with bigger funding prospects.”

When asked about his motivation to continue producing quality products and growing his company, he said, “For me, it’s like a debt that I owe to people, not in terms of money, but a debt in terms of trust. Because these people are giving you money, and they didn’t come to see first-hand what you’re doing. So you need to pay back in terms of making it happen just like you said you would when you were pitching your idea. That’s my main motivation.”

“My advice to entrepreneurs,” Bosco continued, “is to keep going, keep going. There are so many temptations along the way. They will face all those challenges, that’s for sure. The path to success is not straight, it can bend many times, so [entrepreneurs] need to know how to bend…as well.”

“For me, it’s like a debt that I owe to people, not in terms of money, but a debt in terms of trust. Because these people are giving you money, and they didn’t come to see first-hand what you’re doing. So you need to pay back in terms of making it happen just like you said you would…”

Today, Bosco is focusing on a plan to expand to several waste management plants in neighboring districts, and is in talks with local governments about putting the necessary infrastructure in place to allow waste collection to be streamlined. He expresses endless gratitude toward the Kiva community for helping him to achieve his goals when he hit a critical roadblock, and urges Kiva lenders: “Support many more people, because this is the way to easily transform the world.”

Inspired by Jean Bosco’s story? Make a loan on Kiva and change a life today…


About the author

Hope Kerpelman

Hope was born and raised in Baltimore and attended the University of Virginia as a politics major and a varsity student-athlete. After graduation, she moved to New York City to work for an environmental law firm on Fifth Avenue specializing in class action lawsuits. Hope recently relocated to the Bay Area, seeking work that was more in tune with her international aspirations and her strong desire to help tackle the global problem of poverty. She has long been interested in international development and micro-finance, inspired by her academic focus on foreign affairs in developing nations. Hope is thrilled to join such a passionate and driven organization as Kiva, and is excited to contribute to its mission as a whole.