What does it mean for a digital service to be sustainable?
First and foremost, a digital service needs to meet the needs of its users to stand any chance of being sustainable. It needs to fit the purpose it was built for, and it needs to deliver value. Many aspects feed into this including having short feedback loops for learning and iteration, and ensuring the funding of an empowered multidisciplinary team rather than funding a project.
How does the Irembo model enable sustainable digital services?
The Irembo model differs from other countries’ national public services because we are a private organisation and we operate as such. However, Irembo is closely aligned with the Government of Rwanda through the stake it holds in the company, and we’re also aligned with the public sector’s long-term vision to make Rwanda a digital society.
We have a 25-year agreement with the government to work with agencies to digitise and maintain public services on a single window platform. In this sense, this model can be considered sustainable because it has longevity at its heart—it lends itself well to building and maintaining services that are designed to flex with user needs. Many government services are paid services, and we provide a payment engine and charge a commission on every successful paid application which enables us to operate and remain sustainable. If the services we design and build are not used by citizens, Irembo does not make any commission, so effectively, we are incentivised to make it as easy as possible for users to find services, use them and complete their transaction.
The downside of this model was that in the first few years, it was difficult to foresee revenue. But now we have sufficient historic data to anticipate our income and inform our planning accordingly.
How have the considerations around working and building sustainably changed as Irembo has scaled?
In the beginning, our aim was to build a proof of concept so we could earn the trust of a few institutions so we could start the work. At that point, there wasn’t much of a tech community in Rwanda so we worked with global outsourced development teams. However, external teams are not best-placed to iterate services that serve local users. After the first 40 services, it wasn’t scaling, and therefore it wasn’t sustainable. We pivoted and insourced and built our own teams in Rwanda. Due to the pandemic, we have a few remote team members, but we mainly prefer people to be based here because we put such an emphasis on user research. Being close to the people who will use the service you’re designing is important for contextual research but also because you’re more likely to have good knowledge of the way people use digital tools locally.
At Irembo, we offer over 100 services online, but they only represent 20% of all public services in Rwanda. Now, the major piece of work is around choosing the right architecture, framework, and business model to support distributed building and launching of services on our platform. The emphasis will be on speed of releases to ensure each improvement happens in hours instead of weeks or months.
How easy has it been to create an in-house digital delivery team?
We know from many organisations across the world that it is notoriously difficult to attract and retain talent to the public sector— especially software developers. We believe that being a private company has certainly made it easier to hire exceptional people to work on public services (we have around 70 people at Irembo now), but it’s still difficult to find and recruit as many as we need. For context, 5 years ago, there were barely any products being built in Rwanda—we had fewer than 100 software developers in the country.
Today, most digital and technology people are working in their first or second jobs. The organisations they work for; the products and services they design and build, and our digital ecosystem will grow along with their experience. We also recruit internationally to try to bridge that gap and also ensure our products can start to speak more to universal problems that exist in other countries too.
What are Irembo’s biggest achievements so far?
I am most proud of how much we’ve improved the efficiency and accessibility of many public services. For example, when a hospital registers a birth online, parents are able to download a birth certificate within hours. The process used to require 4 physical journeys, 3 public offices, 2 supporting documents and would often take a minimum of 4 days—and that’s if you were aggressive about it getting done. The irembo.gov platform has over 100 services on it from asking for a certificate of residence, to paying for traffic fines to booking an appointment for a covid-19 test and we believe it has saved citizens millions of hours in applications, travel and waiting times.
There’s a common misconception and fear that when nations become more digitised, it will have an overall negative impact on jobs but I’m really proud that we’ve created 4,000 jobs around the country for agents, or ‘digital ambassadors’. Digital ambassadors help citizens who do not have computers or digital skills to access our services. This contributes to better overall levels of digital literacy.
How can citizens support digital transformation?
Citizens can improve the quality of public services by simply using them. If they face problems, they should report them—all feedback deepens delivery teams’ understanding of user needs so they can make improvements. Rwandan citizens are very vocal—they’ve helped us evolve and collect data that enables our partners in government to rethink processes that would lead to better outcomes.
What’s next for Irembo?
We want to accelerate digital transformation. Over the past 6 years, we’ve learnt a lot about how to launch large-scale public digital initiatives and we want to build a public digital toolkit that can support the national or local governments to quickly design, deliver and maintain public services that meet citizens’ needs. The problem we’re solving isn’t unique to Rwanda—it is a global one. We want Irembo to have a presence in more African nations to improve public services and build more trust between citizens and their governments.