Philip Opperman lives and works in a picture postcard. On the banks of a tranquil lake east of Rwanda, this South African farmer runs a popular restaurant bar and sells fresh fish. He came looking for peace but found so much more.
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPH: RIDHIMA SHUKLA
ON YET ANOTHER RAINY DAY IN RWANDA, A TWO-hour drive 50km east of the capital of Kigali, and finally down a long dirt road – muddy in the rain – a charming village awaits.
A glistening lake appears from behind a wooden gate and as you take the descending steps towards it, from across the picket fence in the distance, a man in his late 50s is in a green yard with his back to us. There are birds and bees on the tall palm trees, and the dogs on the property lazily eye the new visitors entering this tropical haven.
It’s an ideal workplace for a man born and bred on a farm although far away in South Africa.
The son of a dairy farm owner, Philip Opperman grew up in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital city, during apartheid.
His life was about soccer, school and long days helping out at the farm, until he was inducted into the South African Defence Force in 1981 for a two-year compulsory stint, and his view of life changed, far from the pastoral pleasures of his father’s farm.
Now resident in his adopted home, Rwanda, Opperman tells FORBES AFRICA, when we meet and as he unravels his journey from South Africa to this village in the hills: “I turned 18 in the army. It opened my eyes to what was going on in South Africa.”
After being relieved from the military, he went on to follow his family trade and pursued a degree in “animal agriculture” but life, yet again, had other plans.
He found himself working as a construction manager navigating some of the most unwelcoming parts of Africa.
Destiny took him far away from his Pretoria farm, as he crisscrossed the continent, for the next two decades laying out infrastructure projects in Nigeria, Angola, and Cameroon.
Back in South Africa, as the project manager for the Government Communication and Information System building in Pretoria, in 2012, Opperman had a chance to meet with staff at the Rwandan Embassy to seek permission for running a loud drilling operation next door.
The senior official at the embassy was looking for a qualified builder to construct the Park INN by Radisson hotel in Kigali, and asked if he was interested. His life was about to change completely.
“When I was offered the job, I had to look up the country [Rwanda] on Google; it was a tiny dot in the heart of Africa.”
While spending a lot of time in Kigali, Opperman found himself having not much else to do in the city. But the hill country, blessed with natural resources, stretched far beyond the city limits, and so he decided to buy a small, tranquil piece of land on the banks of Lake Muhazi in the eastern province.
This became a favorite spot for him and his friends, where they would convene to catch fresh tilapia and camp under the stars.
Sitting by the lake, fishing, was Opperman’s greatest joy, when in 2013, he found that the Rwanda Development Board was looking for investors in fish farming.
“I decided to move away from construction because I was looking for peace.”
It felt serendipitous to the farm boy in him, as his tiny plot by the lake had the ideal ecosystem to farm-fresh fish and entertain guests at a beautiful location by the waters.
After procuring the required licenses from government agencies, which was a smooth process, he set out to build his house on the same property adjacent to his new wintering cages in the lake.
Here, he now lives with his Rwandan business partner, Charlie, and their two young kids. Asked why he chose to live on the farm, he cheekily responds: “Away from your assets is closer to your losses.”
As the need for fresh fish was paramount in Rwanda – which primarily sold frozen fish – business picked up quickly, as hotels, restaurants and big households became Opperman’s regular customers. But due to a shortage of fingerling suppliers in the region, he was unable to meet the demands of his regular clientele or maintain his stock.
So he decided to innovate and expand his property four-fold to begin culturing fingerlings too on his farm. Enterprises across Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) came to know of his venture, which led to a boom in his business.
The next step was to set up large breeding ponds up the hill on his newly-extended property. One milestone led to another, and by 2017, he had become one of the leading producers of fresh fish in the country.
But, as Opperman puts it: “Farming is a gamble – you never know what might destroy months and years of hard work, an infestation, or a storm could drastically change your circumstances.”
In the same year, algae bloom in Lake Muhazi caused major oxygen depletion in the water body and while other fish farmers suffered great losses, he was able to mitigate the damage because of the strategic positioning of his wintering cages, as they had a steady circulation of freshwater.
Tapping into his entrepreneurial spirit, he planted macadamia too adjacent to his farm.
In 2019, Opperman added a restaurant called Fish Pub to his lake-side repertoire. The menu was simple and initially the kitchen ran out of his own home. But large crowds flocked to his offbeat, off-grid location, bringing buying power from the city into the country.
When he had first started out his weekend relaxation camp by the lake, the area was
still disconnected from the formal electrical grid. His efforts led to a transformer being installed in the area and electrical lines being drawn through the village. Inadvertently, his entrepreneurial pursuits also resulted in many homes in the area receiving electricity for the first time, thus endearing him to the locals.
In 2019, his lake-side restaurant and bar, made with fine teak, became a cultural landmark hosting guests from afar, providing them with food and ambiance.
But with Covid-19 in 2020, business took an unconventional turn. “The first lockdown had a huge impact on all economies and mine was no different! We imported our fish fodder from outside of Rwanda and with the borders closed, that became impossible. It also became harder to sell the fresh produce due to its short shelf-life!” says Opperman.
He halted the breeding of the tilapias in order to feed and maintain the population in his ponds with the remaining fish fodder.
But his diversified investments helped him stay afloat during the pandemic. As the restaurant industry worldwide is slowly reviving, as also in Rwanda, Opperman now awaits his first harvest of macadamia nuts.
He is among the many expatriates – including other South Africans – who have made Rwanda home, benefiting from the country’s ease of doing business, and its abundant resources and natural beauty. Opperman says his indefatigable spirit resonates with Rwanda’s own resurgence from a difficult past into a hopeful future.
“I have everything I need right here, I am home!”