Students attend a class at the University of Tourism, Technology and Business Studies of Rwanda (UTB), in Kigali, capital of Rwanda. Photo: Xinhua

 At about 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, a Rwandan motorcycle loaded with shopping orders rode into an apartment compound in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali.

Small items were all packed in paper bags marked with the name of Rwandan e-commerce company HeHe and its website. Established in 2010, DMM.HeHe is more familiar to locals as HeHe, a Kinyarwanda word meaning “where” in English.

With a modern look, HeHe’s online shopping platform offers various kinds of products ranging from crafts, books, electronics and clothing from about 30 shops.

HeHe has also established a logistics platform that not only allows the company to handle delivery, but also provides a logistics solution for transporters. Now, the company is seeking out partnerships to expand operations.

Working with partners instead of competing is a “very important” thing that Davy Nshuti, HeHe’s head of finance and operations, learned from Alibaba after he attended a two-week eFounders Fellowship program held by the Chinese e-commerce giant.

Nshuti said the “intensive” program helps him on many levels, such as knowing the importance of culture in building a great company, the need of having common values as a team and “how to take partners on board.”

The program is part of a cooperation agreement between the Rwandan government and Alibaba under the latter’s Electronic World Trade Platform (eWTP) initiative.

Rwanda and Alibaba launched the eWTP in October 2018, making Rwanda the first African country to launch the platform. The launching ceremony also saw the signing of MOUs in the areas of e-commerce, tourism, e-payment and capacity building, under the framework of eWTP.

Alibaba inspires HeHe a lot, Nshuti said, adding that HeHe draws on the experience of Alibaba according to the actual situation of Rwanda.

“Most of the things they have done looks similar to what we want to achieve,” he said.

The eco-system that e-commerce needs is not yet complete in Rwanda, and HeHe has to create it, just like Alibaba did when it began during a time when Internet use was gaining steam, said Nshuti.

HeHe, which also has an online shop for groceries with over 4,500 active users, is now planning to expand its e-commerce service to Rwanda’s rural areas. Nshuti said the shop is the most popular online grocery store in the central African country.

However, smartphones are not widely used in Rwanda’s countryside, where transportation is lacking.

To address that situation, HeHe is planning to set up fulfillment stores outside Kigali, allowing shoppers to order, buy and collect their goods. Logistics costs could be reduced due to increased number of orders, the 28-year-old said, who is one of HeHe’s founders.

He also revealed that a “global sell, global buy” service is also being prepped, which will enable Rwandan residents to buy from outside Rwanda and allow small and medium-sized enterprises to sell globally.

Since the launch of the eWTP, Rwanda’s coffee and tourism products have been sold on Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms, including coffee from Rwandan company “Land of a Thousand Hills.”

The big Chinese market and increasing number of Chinese coffee consumers give the company’s Managing Director Emmanuel Gatare confidence that the cooperation with Alibaba “will bear fruits.”

The company said cooperation with Alibaba is promising and it is expecting Alibaba and its Chinese partners to maximize the agreement with Rwandan coffee companies.

“We can be the best producer, and they can be our best coffee buyers, and we can improve lives in both nations,” said Gatare.

Besides growing its own coffee, the coffee company partners with over 3,000 coffee farmers, assisting them in growing coffee and buying coffee cherries from them.

The agreement will have a big impact on Rwandan farmers if it can be maximized, said Gatare.

As part of the eWTP agreement signed between the Rwandan government and Alibaba, 22 Rwandan students are expected to attend an undergraduate program at the Alibaba Business School in September.

High school graduate Mike Manzi and his peers will spend four years in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, where Alibaba is headquartered, studying subjects that include the Internet, international trade and cross-border e-commerce.

For the 18-year-old, studying in China is a great opportunity for Rwandan students given Alibaba’s size and experienced staff and China’s strengths in business and technology.

Manzi said he hopes to bring his Chinese experience back home.

Rwanda wants to become a middle-income nation by embracing digitalization and smart business transactions through the eWTP, said Sanny Ntayombya, head of communications and marketing at Rwanda Development Board, in a written interview with Xinhua.

The prospects of the eWTP are high in Rwanda, said Ntayombya, and the country hopes the partnership results in more trade with China and the world.