In this Q&A, learn how Sildio’s fascination with computers led him to pursue a degree in computer science, overcoming limited resources and family expectations. Listen to the full conversation, or read some of the highlights from Sildio’s discussion with Alice Kanjejo on the My Tech Story Africa podcast.
Tech Jobs: Q&A with Sildio Mbonyumuhire, TechnoServe Labs
Alice: Where did your interest in tech begin?
Sildio: I grew up in a village in Rwanda. When I was a kid, my dream was not to be in tech but to be a priest. I even applied to go to a seminary in northern Rwanda. I didn’t see a computer in person until well into my years of schooling. When I was in school, only the head of the school had access to a computer. But I remember there was a day when he asked me for help with something on the computer. I tried to help, but I ended up messing up his document.
After that, he said he could get me a computer that I could use to practice. We had electricity issues at school, so we could only use the computers for a few hours at a time. But as I began using the computer more, my interest in priesthood waned – much to the dismay of my mom, who really wanted me to be a priest. My new fascination with computers disappointed her, but she eventually supported my new dream.
I ultimately decided to attend the University of Rwanda for my bachelor’s degree in computer science. My class had 150 students, but we only had 20 computers to use, so we had to share. The university program was most students’ first time seeing a computer, as computers were costly at the time. I realized I needed to find a side job to save for a computer. So I eventually found a job teaching physics, math, and computer science at a secondary school. It took me about a year, but I eventually saved enough money to buy my computer.
Alice: What led you to Carnegie Mellon University-Africa (CMU-Africa)?
Sildio: I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do after I graduated from the University of Rwanda. I thought I would probably go back to teach since there weren’t many tech companies in Rwanda then, and I didn’t feel I had the necessary experience to be competitive in a tech job market. I thought about getting another degree, and someone mentioned CMU-Africa to me. I was technically still pursuing my bachelor’s degree then, but I decided to apply. The application process was long and expensive, particularly considering I was still in school. I had to do a coding challenge, an interview, and an English test. Eventually I learned that I was accepted, and this was all while I was still technically studying at the University of Rwanda.
Once I got to CMU-Africa in Kigali, it was an incredible but challenging experience. I felt like there were a lot of things I had to catch up on, so I was studying day and night. But the university had so many supportive people to help. After my first year, I got an internship at Microsoft, where I met so many people from different backgrounds and areas of expertise. This experience solidified my passion for jobs in tech.
Alice: What are you doing now?
Sildio: After graduating from CMU-Africa in 2014 with a master’s degree in information technology, I worked for several companies as a software engineer. Then, in 2021, I heard about a nonprofit organization called TechnoServe. Part of our work involves using technology to scale up our impact in fighting global poverty. I joined the organization in 2021 as part of their TechnoServe Labs team.
This work is gratifying for a few reasons. Building a technology solution is one thing, but seeing end users use it in practice is a whole other thing. Seeing that the solution you designed contributes to lifting someone out of poverty is even better.
Previously, I developed tools for the companies I worked for. Now, I’m developing tools for TechnoServe clients – small-scale farmers and entrepreneurs around the world. That’s the biggest difference between my previous work and my current work. You get to measure the impact of what you’re creating in terms of value.”
Alice: What collaboration is needed within the tech sector to solve some of Africa’s most pressing social challenges?
Sildio: We need to focus on what people actually need, and we have to do it collaboratively. I appreciate that governments in Africa are working together more now. I’m also inspired by the next generation of young leaders I’ve met who are passionate about using technology to address critical challenges across the continent. CMU-Africa gathers young people from different cultures and backgrounds to solve complex challenges.
TechnoServe’s work also serves as a model for future collaboration between the private sector, public sector, and nonprofits. For example, in Benin, we developed a dashboard to help the Beninese government identify where cashew trees are grown and where basic agronomic practices are being followed. They can then use this information to create policies and programs to support farmers better.
Alice: What advice would you give to young people who want to get involved in software engineering and technology more generally?
Sildio: My advice would be that you don’t have to be scared; you just have to get started. When I think back on my life as someone born in a village not knowing what a computer is, to now graduating from CMU-Africa as a software engineer, I had no idea this would be my career trajectory. I’m so grateful that I get to use my skills for good and to work on projects that improve people’s quality of life tangibly.
Sildio Mbonyumuhire is based in Kigali, Rwanda. He joined TechnoServe in 2021 and has led initiatives across Africa and Latin America as a key member of TechnoServe Labs. TechnoServe Labs aims to identify, test, and implement promising technologies to deliver market-based solutions to poverty on a global scale.