Before his family got electricity, Charles Ishimwe, 26, would walk to the nearest hospital to complete his homework, relying on the light sources there to do his readings. Ishimwe said he watched movies in theaters, but while growing up in Rwanda he never thought that he would be able to actually create them.
Now, the senior visual and media arts major is working to bring online educational videos to entrepreneurs and innovators in sub-Saharan Africa. He’s designing the African Media Project, a program that will teach digital media skills in Swahili, one of the most common languages in the region.
The focus on digital media came out of Ishimwe’s observation that there are many young people in Africa, but many of them don’t have the digital skills necessary to thrive in the global economy. According the U.N.’s Africa Renewal Online, almost 200 million people fall between the ages of 15 and 24, making the continent the youngest populated in the world. However, of this age group, over 70 percent live on less than $2 per day.
Ishimwe said that he thinks access to videos that teach these skills will give the youth a chance to work for themselves and make their own money.
“There’s a lot of young people who can use the digital media skills to make and start their own life to make their own money, but they don’t have those skills,” Ishimwe said.
For instance, with the learning tools, business owners might learn how to sell things online, he said.
Ishimwe said he wanted to use the media and production resources at Emerson to fill the need for digital communication skills in Africa. He said that he hopes to finish the business model and film prototype videos here in Boston by the end of this semester.
Initially, Ishimwe said, he wants to start with a video production class and a digital marketing class. Video production would target aspiring filmmakers in Africa who need introductory skills for the field. Digital marketing would be aimed at entrepreneurs and small business owners who need help promoting their businesses, according to Ishimwe.
This isn’t Ishimwe’s first experience trying to bring more resources to the sub-Saharan region. He first came to the United States from Rwanda in 2010 when he entered an entrepreneurship competition in Seattle, Washington. He worked on the Nuru Light project, which used rechargeable LED lights to replace the kerosene lamps that are most common in Rwanda.
Ishimwe had other ways he wanted to help the area, though. He said he originally planned to open a media lab in Rwanda, where people without home access to computers and equipment could come to learn digital skills.
Liz Harvey, a close friend and mentor to Ishimwe, said she owned a marketing company when he pitched the idea to her.
“It was a great idea,” she said, “but at the same time it was a big idea. To start a school, you need a lot of money.”
Ishimwe said he developed a plan for the African Media Project when he saw a flier for Emerson Accelerator, a program that fast tracks students’ entrepreneurial ideas. Harvey said his idea of opening a media lab in Rwanda morphed into the concept of online instruction when he decided to apply to Accelerator.
“Emerson Accelerator kind of opened my eyes and showed me that this [project] can be possible if I pitch my idea to them,” Ishimwe said.
Cathy Waters, the director of Emerson Accelerator, said that Ishimwe applied with comprehensive research about why his idea mattered. Waters also said Ishimwe is committed and hardworking.
“Charles has personal qualities that just are amazing, and I think anyone that knows him—you’re going to believe he’s going to do what he sets out to do,” she said.
The Africa Media Project is still in its formative stages. Ishimwe said that right now he is working with his field coordinator in Rwanda to survey their intended market.
“It’s a way of trying to get an idea of what people like—what our target audiences wish to learn, and which level they are, and if they have equipment, if they have Internet,” he said. “We are trying to learn how it’s going to work, and then we can launch those initial videos.”
Beyond just benefitting African communities, Ishimwe said he wants the Emerson community to benefit, too. He sees this as an opportunity for students and faculty to get involved with the project and learn more about Africa. Ishimwe said he knows of a couple of Emerson students who wanted to film there, and he suspects more students share this interest, but just don’t know where to start. This project would give them an opportunity to connect with people on the continent.
Ultimately, Ishimwe said, he wants to expand the videos to languages from all over the world, so that anyone interested in digital media can have access to educational materials. But for now he just needs a good team of people to help him develop and execute his plans.
“I’m trying to see if I can get people involved and give me ideas and advice,” he said. “There are a lot of resources here, there are a lot of smart students here at Emerson. Why not try to help people who are in need of these [digital media] skills?”