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Land Of A Thousand Ideas

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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.

READ MORE: Heroes In Rwanda’s Sky

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.”

Mois (Photo by Irankunda Yves Jean Sauveur)

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.”

READ MORE: Rwanda Inc. Rules In The Land Of A Thousand Cranes

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.

Jacques Nkinzingabo (Photo by Irankunda Yves Jean Sauveur)

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.”

READ MORE: Something To Wine About

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.

Irenee Gumyushime (Photo by Irankunda Yves Jean Sauveur)

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.

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IN PICTURES | Truck Entrepreneur Drives Style Movement

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Collaborations are key for the development of Africa’s sports economy


On a busy road in Soweto, in the southwest of Johannesburg, taxis go about their daily drill, stopping to pick up passengers outside the apartment-tenements of Chiawelo. Here, a truck of a different kind is stationed next to an old container and a car wash.

It’s owned by Siyabulela Ndzonga, a small entrepreneur dabbling in fashion, who has turned it into a concept store, on wheels.

Ndzonga,who brands himself Siya Fonds (S/F) – after a nickname his mother gave him as a baby, has been associated with the South African Fashion Week and with reputed designers such as Ole Ledimo, the founder of House of Olé, and stylist and fashion guru Felipe Mazibuko.

I didn’t even study fashion but it’s interesting how I’m actually making an impact and contributing a lot in the fashion industry, says Ndzonga. 

It was around 2011, when he sold second-hand clothes on the trendy streets of Braamfontein in Johannesburg, where only the cool kids would hang out.

“I was big on thrifting; selling second-hand clothes. I would thrift, resell,thrift, resell.”

His hard work earned him a stall at one of the flea markets in Johannesburg. At this point, Ndzonga was still employed at a retail store. After work and on weekends, he would be hustling on Johannesburg’s streets, all for the love of fashion and because people loved his work.

Ndzonga saw a business opportunity, quit his retail job and registered his brand in 2013. Later that year, Toe Porn socks contacted him and requested he consult for them.

“Brand consulting means that I come in and take their clothes and use them to translate the current fashion trends, translate them to how I think [people]should be dressing in terms of fashion. I actually became a designer because I set trends before they would trend. I would set the tone, narrative and navigate where fashion should go in the whole world, not just in South Africa,” he says.

His fame slowly grew and he started making clothes for others, traveling by taxi to CMT (cut, make and trim) factories in Germiston, 42kms from his hometown. 

“In 2015, that’s when I really saw that I am growing as a brand and that’s when I started consulting for international brands like Palladium Shoes, Fila and Ben Sherman.”

The business grew but he had to travel to others parts of country and that exercise was taxing.

He stopped making clothes and paused his business.

“The whole of 2016, I focused on consulting and saved money to set up a truck. I needed a store so people could come in and purchase Siya Fonds from the truck. This whole thing of delivering is not me, I can’t do it,” says Ndzonga.

“I initially wanted a container, but the truck was a better, fresher alternative. I’m not the first to do it, but I’m the first in Soweto. I set it up and people love it because it’s bringing popular culture to Soweto. I had to trust myself that’s it’s going to work and it did.”

The truck had been lying unused when Ndzonga purchased it, and he overhauled it with a lick of paint and an infusion of color and character.

I got another truck to pick it up and bring it to the current location in 2016.

In March 2017, the truck was launched as a concept store and he called it Block 88, as it encompasses other brands as well.

“Business was not so great after the launch. It only picked up after a few months of selling a few international brands that I consult for. We had seven brands in the store.”

He sells t-shirts, caps, jackets and jumpsuits. A two-piece suit sells for R1,400 ($97).

The next step for Ndzonga is to have stores in all the neighborhoods in Soweto and major South African cities.

Since the inception of his truck, he has also injected some vibrancy into the community.

He organizes art development programs and conversations around social issues on Fridays outside the truck, gathering youth and children.

“Conversation Fridays is like TED-talks. It’s bringing conversations to the township instead of having them in the city or suburbs and speak about what creatives are facing in the creative space and industry,” he says.

Now, he works as a consultant with a consumer agency and collaborates on a number of brands, also doing research for them. As the hustle and bustle quietens down at sunset in Soweto, Ndzonga’s trendy truck shuts shop. Tomorrow will be another day as a beacon of hope and vibrancy on a Soweto street.


Siyabulela Ndzonga of Siya Fonds. Picture: 
Motlabana Monnakgotla

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