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Smart Incubator start-up tackles African employment challenges

By ITU News

While seeing his friends and neighbours struggle to achieve financial stability, Clement Muhirwa sensed an opportunity for innovation.

Many of Rwanda’s contractors and casual workers, even when earning decent wages, remain “unbanked” – excluded from the formal financial system.

All around him, the Kigali-based innovator saw people who, although gainfully employed, lacked traceable financial history and could not pay into pension funds or obtain loans.

Muhirwa’s idea was to tackle the problem at the source: companies hiring casual workers. He found that the companies were grappling with numerous operational challenges, from recording employees’ billable hours to lost payments to security issues while transporting cash around Rwanda.

To ease wage payments in these circumstances, Muhirwa and Gladys Inabeza, another young entrepreneur from Kigali, devised a platform – originally dubbed Casual Payroll – connecting employers to banks and mobile money providers, with the specific aim of securing worker payrolls.

An intelligent payroll system automates casual worker payments using biometric fingerprints and facial recognition for validation, with the platform maintaining links between employer and employee accounts.

Incubating innovation

Four years ago, Inabeza and Muhirwa joined the Smart Incubator Programme, an initiative by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to support early-stage start-ups with mentorship and technology sandboxes to prepare and test their solutions. Inabeza and Muhirwa went on to win the ITU Telecom Award in the Best Business Model category for 2018.

Soon after its Smart Incubator experience, Casual Payroll gained its first client – a company seeking to track costs and stabilize payments for casual workers.

Since then, the automatically generated payroll system, which enables employers to calculate casual worker salaries in a few clicks, has made payments easier and faster for growing numbers of Rwandan companies.

A key part of the solution is the biometric component.

In 2019, Casual Payroll introduced a facial recognition and fingerprinting device to help construction workers digitize their salary payments. Image credit: Casual Payroll/Centric

Managers receive a fingerprint and facial recognition device, with which each employee checks in or out, enabling employers to track shifts, attendance, employee turnover, and billable hours more precisely.

Pandemic pivot

In Rwanda, like elsewhere, start-ups proved particularly vulnerable during the COVID-19 crisis. Inabeza and Muhirwa used the turbulent 2020-2021 period to reflect, adjust, and expand their services in response to evolving requests from clients. Casual Payroll added options to pay and trace petty cash. It also introduced a separate bank card to pay or withdraw money.

Closer collaboration with companies and casual workers continued revealing new challenges for the founders to tackle.

While Europe was facing a developer shortage and skyrocketing demand, many young developers experienced difficulties finding employment in Africa. The mismatch prompted Casual Payroll to start linking developers in its network with international companies.

International expansion

Earlier this year, Casual Payroll joined the Start-up Germany Africa Initiative (StAfrica), which aims to build a “continental start-up bridge” facilitating the entry of African start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) into the German market or vice versa. As part of the initiative, the University of Koblenz-Landau, in cooperation with the University of Rwanda, organized a special week for African start-ups to explore German market opportunities.

During this StAfrica Start-up Week, Muhirwa presented Casual Payroll to potential investors and backers with the support of an ITU Smart Incubator partner, the Accra Digital Centre.

He also networked at other German start-up venues, including Investment and Structural Bank Rhineland-Palatinate (Investitions- und Strukturbank Rheinland-Pfalz) and STARTPLATZ incubator and accelerator in Cologne, with provided direct matchmaking meetings with German SMEs.

These fruitful interactions prompted the company’s decision to rebrand.

Afro-Centric aspirations

Having moved beyond simply securing payments for contract workers,Casual Payroll has now become Centric. The new name aims to reflect the start-up’s expanded activities, as well as its wider vision of supporting young African entrepreneurs by stimulating the labour market and connecting developers with potential employers.

Simply put, Centric is striving to tackle unemployment in Africa, where “the pandemic has heightened the urgency of creating more decent work” and “signalled the need to rethink macroeconomic and sectoral policies in order to realign them with employment creation,” according to the latest World Employment and Social Outlook report from the International Labour Organization.

The company’s founders are set on continued expansion – without forgetting their journey.

“None of this would have been possible without the support of the ITU Smart Incubator Programme,” notes Muhirwa. “It was a life-changing experience.”

Image credit: Centric

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