While the story of Charis garners attention because of its creative and effective use of technology, from a systems thinking perspective the key elements here relate to the customer value and growth orientation of the firm in addition to the efforts of USAID’s Nguriza Nshore to apply systems thinking when catalyzing the emergence of an entrepreneurial eco-system. For entrepreneurship to become an engine of growth, increasingly entrepreneurs need to commit to this customer/growth orientation. Through the use of systems lenses, Nguriza Nshore has been able to catalyze service providers, transaction advisors, government, investors, etc. that make the eco-system better at identifying and prioritizing entrepreneurs with a committed mindset like Charis. As the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Rwanda becomes able to better target and support customer/growth-oriented firms, the overall competitive landscape will also begin to change as these newcomers capture larger and larger consumer segments through the value they deliver. As customers recognize they have a choice where certain firms are committed to providing them value, other firms will be forced to compete on the value they deliver to customers. It is through this process that Rwandan market systems are starting to become more competitive, inclusive, and resilient.
A revolutionary company on multiple fronts, Charis Unmanned Aerial Solutions (Charis UAS, or Charis) is Rwanda’s first-ever licensed drone company and leader in drone services. The company’s mission is to provide rapid and high-quality aerial imagery to support intelligent decision-making in pursuit of solving Africa’s biggest challenges. Currently working across a variety of industries, ranging from agriculture to construction, mining, energy, tourism, and beyond, Charis employs their fleet of drones to offer tailor-made and specialized results for every project. For example, Charis UAS provides agricultural solutions through monitoring large swathes of farmland to see how each farm is performing, mapping the land, and providing advisory services so that farmers may address problem areas of their land.
In 2014, when the company first started, there were no commercial drones in Rwanda and no regulations in place for unmanned aircraft systems. In Charis’ early days, they focused their operations on aerial photography and videography for two main client industries: events/receptions and tourism. After gaining a foothold in these sectors, they began to look for opportunities in other industries. Of their expansion, Mamy Ingabire, Managing Director of Charis says, “it was a lot of research and working with our customers or our potential customers, to really understand the issues that they have, for us to get the right aerial solutions for them. So, it was a lot of collaboration. We had to provide free services just to get to know what are the needs of our clients, or what are the needs of our potential clients. That really helped us to develop quite a number of solutions for them.” Through this process, Charis has honed their mission, and grown to offer drone-based solutions to a wide range of clients, from private sector actors such as farms and mines, to the public sector, working with governments across the African continent to address population concerns such as health, sanitation, urban planning, and transportation, among others. As an enterprise, Charis is constantly on the lookout for new ways to adapt their technology to serve/offer solutions for previously unaddressed problems and new client segments. For instance, they are eager to expand their operations to include surveillance work to combat poaching. “We are always excited to come in with new solutions. You know, communities and everything are just evolving every day, and new things are happening. Now, with the pandemic, you know, it’s another crisis, so we’ll come up with different solutions. We are a very innovative company,” said Mamy.
In addition to their clearly defined mission-driven orientation, and their focus on delivering value to their customers, Charis has been able to rapidly garner international attention and investment due to their particular approach to business growth. From early in their company history, Charis was willing, even eager, to give up shares of their business to external investors and advisors. This behavior is indicative of an evolving corporate culture predicated on the desire to build a business to outlive and expand larger than the individuals who created it. Of investment, Mamy says, “Looking at the opportunities, the possibilities that are out there, we can see that we are able to do big things. We just trust what we have and what we are providing, and having the right investors, the right partnership, and the right partners, we will get there.” Through investment readiness support provided by their contracted transaction advisory firm, Market Intelligence Africa (MIA), and facilitation support from Nguriza Nshore, Charis has been able to attend a number of investment conferences, receiving numerous offers for Series A investment.
It is significant to note that as a company, Charis is predominantly driven by young people, from the leadership down, a fact that Mamy spoke proudly of. Fadzayi Musanhu of MIA also highlighted this overall trend in behavior from younger African entrepreneurs of being keener on equity opportunities that may provide cash support but also technical and advisory support to establish a strong governance system, with a longer-term vision of growth 5, 10, and 15 years on, as opposed to being focused on access to capital to steer the business presently. “The good thing is there are more businesses now, most of the businesses now that are raising money are owned by the younger generations… Which is a good thing, because it means that the mindset is changing, and maybe in the long-term, we’ll see less and less of the older generation who just want to keep their business in their family, and aren’t really thinking about the wider growth prospects. The more we have these younger entrepreneurs up and coming, and the more we support them, the more we’ll find them outward-looking and willing to bring in different types of investment,” Fadzayi says.
As they look to the future, Charis is working towards establishing a factory in Rwanda to manufacture drones locally. Additionally, they have plans to expand and build more offices across the African continent, and potentially, the globe, adding to their existing offices in Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, and Côte d’Ivoire.
What once began as a family business has now grown to much more than that, none of which would have been possible without Charis’ carefully constructed corporate culture, and long-term growth-oriented behavior. Charis UAS is but one example of a company eager for equity investment and partnership. This is indicative of an evolving culture around entrepreneurship in Rwanda, one that is shifting away from the cash-capturing individual-ownership model, opening up to different types of investment mechanisms, particularly those that share ownership and benefits as a means to achieve greater long-term growth through the value delivered to customers.
Written by the Feed the Future Nguriza Nshore Team
The MSDHub Blog Series is authored by respected implementers and donors of market systems projects globally.