The best way to experience Rwanda’s business environment is to take a walk up Kigali’s immaculate central business district (CBD) or down the small shopping streets of Kacyiru.
The ‘land of a thousand hills’, with its sprawling green valleys and vistas, has seen many ups and downs in its history, but this is a nation visibly on the move – more construction cranes the size of skyscrapers, more global hotel brands setting up, and a classy convention center that lights up the night sky in rainbow colors.
Beneath this veneer is a hardworking young population eager to be protagonists of their country’s progress.
At the Union Trade Centre, a popular hub for young coffee-lovers and mall-hoppers in Kigali’s CBD, Mois, an entrepreneur in his mid-20s running a shop selling African bric-a-brac, welcomes you with a smile that makes the afternoon sun pale in comparison.
He points to his gleaming jewelry collection – contemporary pieces made out of what looks like brass, but isn’t.
Mois makes them himself, out of used padlocks from the scrapyard, and old coins, which he melts and upcycles into jewelry. His creations are in demand in the US and the Netherlands, he says.
A qualified civil engineer, he has more knowledge about alloys and metals than most jewelers.
“I have a proper professional degree,” says the unassuming Rwandan. “But what I do now is my passion, one that makes me money, and helps the co-operatives I work with.”
While the country records growth of 8%, it’s this spirit of “not just money, but meaning” that echoes through the contoured landscapes of Kigali.
In the heart of Kacyiru, down KG 5 Avenue, are more examples of small, medium and micro enterprises – one-storied shops that have survived for decades.
From a 71-year-old grandmother who helms a grocery store to the starry-eyed salesgirl selling cheap moccasins, and charming salons, gaming bars, resto-bars and Afro-chic boutiques, the street is a smorgasbord of experiences and a subset of Rwanda’s informal economy.
Off the same street and on to a dirt road, we meet Jacques Nkinzingabo, a “street photographer” sporting dreadlocks and a hat. The red-brick building we meet in has a large exhibition space out at the back by a patch of lawn where Sawa, Nkinzingabo’s adorable German Shepherd pup, is goofing around.
On the studio’s white walls are numerous photographs recording Rwandan life.
Nkinzingabo was born a week before the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, and as a photographer, wants to now portray “new Rwanda” to the world. His visitors are mostly tourists who book on vayando.com, to meet with the country’s skilled entrepreneurs, instead of visiting the standard tourist attractions.
“The image that tourists have of this country is Hotel Rwanda,” says Nkinzingabo, referring to the hit 2004 film on the Rwandan genocide.
“But I want to reframe the country to show where we come from; I want to show them how we live, dress, cook and lead our daily lives.”
Since signing up with Vayando over two years ago, Nkinzingabo says it has helped him connect with tourists and locals. He makes about $300 a month on average through this partnership.
Scott Wilhelm, Vayando’s co-founder, is an American who has been in Kigali three years now. A social entrepreneur from Chicago, he was a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador until 2006.
With his business partner Jason Seagle, he set up Vayando, “a tool for curious travelers and a marketplace for entrepreneurs”. Rwanda appealed to them for its “stability, security and progressive approach”.
Tourists, mostly from America and Europe, book the experience online, at about $100 per customizable experience, and meet at the Kigali city centre – “by the elevator outside of Nakumatt”.
“We take them to places they wouldn’t go, to neighborhoods within the labyrinth close to town. These are people looking for meaningful experiences,” says Wilhelm.
Those like Nkinzingabo are a part of Vayando’s trusted network of entrepreneurs.
“Jacques sets the price and gets 100% of what he asks for. We add 30% for our charges. It’s an alternative revenue stream for entrepreneurs and primarily, a networking opportunity,” says Wilhelm.
“We drive bookings to entrepreneurs… we want them to have a 13th month of income.”
A short drive away is the bustling Gisozi, and the assaulting smell of wood and paint – this is the area that sells woodwork, construction materials and hardware.
As you walk up an uneven road, with deep tyre marks in the mud, you pass cows and curious onlookers. This is the rustic route Vayando customers take to meet Irenee Gumyushime, known as ‘Magic Hands’ in these parts.
There are broken pieces of glass and wood shavings on his dusty shop floor. Gumyushime is crafting a bed out of pinewood. He acquired a diploma in civil engineering but chose to be a carpenter.
“They say I touch the wood and it turns to wonder,” beams Gumyushime. He can speak English which is a boon for Vayando’s overseas customers wanting to hear about the 29-year-old entrepreneur’s life.
“This shop mainly caters to expatriates,” he says. “They bring their own ideas and I customize furniture for their spaces. I get to meet international tourists, and make some money on the side. They learn from me; I learn from them.”
Walking back to the city center, more heartening stories unravel along the way, even as Rwanda’s informal economy winds down after a long, productive day.