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Rwanda Inc. Rules In The Land Of A Thousand Cranes

It is one of the most ambitious countries in Africa with a story that Hollywood scriptwriters would have struggled to write. Can a shattered country, scarred by destruction and death, rebuild itself into a hi-tech Singapore of Africa in less than three decades? It won’t be easy, but Rwanda dreams on.




Celestin Rwabukumba is the fresh-faced father of the Rwanda Stock Exchange. Every morning he breezes into work in Kigali with business in his head and the fragile future of one of Africa’s newest stock exchanges in his hands.

“As a country, the sky is the limit,” he says.

At the age of 39, Rwabukumba must be one of the youngest stock exchange leaders in the world.  Despite his tender years, in business at least, Rwabukumba has every justification to call himself the sage of stock trading in Rwanda. His story is as remarkable as that of the tiny exchange.

Rwabukumba is a survivor of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. He lost most of his family, including his father, who died in the 100 days of madness that claimed more than 800,000 lives. Like many in Rwanda, he is reluctant to dwell on the horrors that visited upon his family and I do not have the heart to ask him.

What is clear is that Rwabukumba fled his country to the United States where he studied at the University of Buffalo, near New York, and earned a degree in economics. He became a stockbroker in New York and worked on Wall Street.

In 2004, came the call from home and Rwabukumba returned to Rwanda to work on a project to set up capital markets. It bore fruit in 2008, when Rwanda set up a rudimentary over-the-counter exchange, with a whiteboard and marker pens that you only see in schools these days.

On January 3, 2011, the Rwanda Stock Exchange was born in the brand new high-rise building that towers over Kigali. The building itself, is a symbol of the triumph of capital over disaster.

“For many Rwandans, like me, it has made us stronger as a nation. We are a resilient people ready to fight for a better future,” says Rwabukumba.

The RSE may be a speck on the African capital landscape, but it is growing in strength. It must be one of the few exchanges on earth where you can list the listings in one short sentence: NMG, a cross listing from Kenya; KCB, a Kenyan bank; Bralirwa, a brewery in Rwanda and the Bank of Kigali.

Trading is growing slowly; the marker pens are still there. The exchange plans to go electronic in December.

Every day the traders, in their bright red jackets, write out trades that it would take merely seconds for other African exchanges to notch up. In 2011, the RSE traded an average of $131,000 a day; in 2013 this has more than doubled to $292,000.

“My dream is for a big telecommunications company, like MTN, to list here. That would bring more capital and confidence to our market here,” Rwabukumba says.

Rwanda appears far from short of confidence as it emerges from the kind of hell that it has taken other countries in Africa decades to recover from. For the last 10 years, a time when the economies of the world struggled, Rwanda’s economy has grown by an average of 8.2%, according to finance minister Claver Gatete.

“This year, we are predicting 7.5% at the very minimum,” says Gatete.

Gatete, a former ambassador to London and head of the National Bank of Rwanda, took the job of guiding his country’s economy in February.  He says the key to success is the country’s stability and its prudent economic policy that has made it the third easiest place to do business in Africa. The country has fast internet and a will to do business. Credit card giant Visa gave Rwanda a vote of confidence by choosing the country for one of its credit card programs.

“We have come a long way, we have reached the bottom, the only way to go up is to make sure we take ownership of the growth of our economy and sustain it,” says Gatete.

You can register a company in Kigali in six hours and move your money in and out freely. Inflation, in the years after the genocide, was as high as 65%, now it is down to single figures.

Rwanda is also pushing forward the East Africa Community, the trading bloc of one of the fastest growing regions in the world. It has helped speed up trade across it by removing cloying weighbridges and bureaucracy; at the same time bringing in ICT to reduce clearing times.

Corruption is low and the country’s president Paul Kagame has built strong institutions in Rwanda to ensure it doesn’t get a foothold. In many ways the erudite and pragmatic Kagame, who talks like a CEO, has worked hard to shape the country into Rwanda Inc. It was he who encouraged many skilled Rwandans to return home and it is he who sees toughness as the only way to run his country. Legend has it that Kagame has appeared in person in government offices to fire corrupt officials.

“I don’t know about that, but he can fire you across the table in a meeting,” chuckles one of the Kigali inner circle.

When Rwanda struggled to sell its low quality coffee, Kagame brought in a team of United States agronomists to work out how the country could turn it into super-premium grade for export. Commodities, including tea and coffee, now make up more than three quarters of export earnings.

The streets of Kigali are clean and without potholes. Every month, Rwandans, including the president, take a few hours out of their day to clean and repair their neighborhood. Crime is also low among a people who appear exceedingly weary of conflict.

This dedication to order and business reflects on the Kigali skyline. The so-called land of a thousand hills is well on the way to becoming the land of a thousand cranes. The capital, once smashed and littered with dead, is rebuilding from the ground floor upwards. I have been traveling to Kigali since 2005 and was heartened to see new hotels, a sign that strong investment is on the way and accommodation prices could soon be on the way down.  I also saw one of the hotels had a lucky red Chinese lantern hanging from the scaffolding.

The rise from the ashes by the economy of Rwanda has been a remarkable story, but there are problems too. There is a lack of skills and the country’s small coffers are likely to struggle to buy all of the resources and equipment needed for a growing economy. Most of Rwanda’s 45 million people crowd onto scarce land and live from subsistence farming.

Maybe the biggest threat to the investor-friendly stability that Rwanda is trying to build comes from outside its borders. In the unstable eastern region of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, insurgents fight a running war. A number of donors cut off aid this year after accusing Rwanda of supporting the M23 rebels in the DRC. Rwanda denies this strongly. Gatete hopes private money will replace lost donor funds.

“Rwanda believes that in order to succeed peace is very, very crucial, that is why, when it comes to the DRC, we are the first to support the peace, and we believe that a solution is a regional solution working with the DRC government,” says Gatete, when asked by FORBES AFRICA about the allegations.

At home, many in Kigali say opposition is discouraged, to say the least. Two Rwandan journalists emerged from prison in August after completing a three-year jail term for what the courts called divisionism, genocide denial, defamation and incitement to violence. The two had written a series of articles critical of the government.

“The whole world is not homogenous. We cannot cut and paste democracy for something to look good. It has to work for us. We do not have the kind of democracy where we have a politician saying one thing and then the next day the opposition goes on the radio to say it is wrong. We have a parliament where all members can give constructive ideas,” says Vincent Karega, Rwanda’s ambassador to South Africa.

There is also the question of who will lead Rwanda when Kagame completes his term in 2017.

For the future, Rwanda is banking on ICT and the services industry. Kagame has studied the Asian Tigers and wants to make Rwanda the Singapore of Africa. The country has invested in hundreds of schools and colleges in an attempt to train a workforce capable of making this dream happen.

Many African countries could take a leaf out of Rwanda’s book when it comes to building an economy. True, Rwanda is a small country where it is easier to carry out sweeping changes among a people who are steeled to suffer for a better future by the violence and upheaval that befell their forebears. Taking that into account, there is no reason why many other African nations could not equally take advantage of the free market forces that Rwanda is unfettering by welcoming investors, fighting corruption and speeding up the internet.

Looking ahead, could there be a problem if the government in Rwanda feels it has lost control of its country to wealthy foreign investors? Unlikely, while this generation of politicians rule the roost.

“We want that,” says Gatete, “We need the private sector to be with us to build our economy… This is inclusive of the economic growth that is touching the lives of everybody and everyone is seeing the benefits of what the government is doing.”

It appears Rwanda Inc. is likely to be open for business for a long time to come.


The Bolt And The Beautiful



From cheers on the track and field to cheers of a different kind, Jamaican sprinting champion Usain Bolt was in South Africa recently to launch his signature champagne.

Widely considered the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, the nine-time Olympic gold medalist who has broken records, is now breaking new ground in the business world.

He was in South Africa in January to launch a limited edition champagne in collaboration with champagne producer G.H. Mumm.

Having graced some of the world’s biggest Olympic stadiums, the retired Jamaican sprinter was at the swanky The Maslow hotel in Johannesburg, promoting the pink bubbly as it poured endlessly into fluted glasses.

As the $45 Mumm Olympe Rosé bottle was being passed around, all attention was on the world champion. 

“In Jamaica, we do this naturally; we mix cognac with champagne, and it’s something I enjoy. So when we sat down in the first meeting and we were trying to figure out what direction we wanted to go with for the bottle and with the drink, I mentioned it and asked ‘is it possible?’ and they said ‘yes’. So for me, that was something I was happy about. When you taste it, you’ll taste the cognac and together it’s very nice, trust me,” Bolt tells FORBES AFRICA, aptly marketing his product.

The A-list sports star poses with two bottles, symbolic of the two years it took to create what he calls a premium drink.

G. H. Mumm’s Senior Global Brand Manager, Etienne Cassuto, says collaborations of this magnitude have to be a reflection of authenticity and teamwork.

“This is not something we created and said ‘great, put your name on it, sign it and we sell it’; he created this wine with us and that is why it is something that is truly collaborative and that is where some brands get it wrong,” he says. 

“It took a long time to really get to know Usain Bolt… as an athlete, as someone who has broken records and who has surpassed everything in life to get to where he is today. This desire to partner with Usain Bolt, who is now a retired athlete but still pushing the limit to what he can achieve and really daring himself to go beyond to find his next victory… that is why since 2016, we have been collaborating to try and understand how we can build something in common.”

Bolt, who retired from athletics in 2017, has since pursued a career in football; he decided to hang up his boots in 2018.

His short-lived football career saw him play for Central Coast Mariners, and train in South Africa with Mamelodi Sundowns F.C.

The Olympic sprint champion says athletes should focus on building a brand beyond the track.

“In sports, I was always trying to be the best and do things that have never been done before, it is the same thing in business. You have to find things that no one has done before… As athletes, you should focus on trying to build your brand. Try to work hard and try to develop a personality.

“I think I get sponsorships because I have a personality. I am different, and I stand out. Develop a personality, a brand that people know, this is Bolt, this is Simbine, this is Wayde. I always tell Wayde ‘it is good to be fast and to be great, but if you want to build your brand you have to show your personality’. People will want you to be a part of their brand’,” he tells us.

Akani Simbine and Wayde van Niekerk are South African athletes.

 And Bolt loves South Africa. “When they called and told me we are launching in South Africa, I was happy. Last year, I had so much fun. The energy was different. It felt like home because this is the only place I have been to that I have danced so much. In Jamaica, we dance a lot, but in Africa, you guys dance. A lot!” he says joyfully.

The whole vibe is that of celebration.

“Africa is an exciting market for champagne. African consumers want more premium goods; they want to really discover new things, new products, new categories and they want to spend a little more to discover high-quality products, whether it is luxury or premium goods,” adds Cassuto.

South Africa’s affluent market is no different, and Bolt attests to that – the man fast on the track and faster with his soundbites.

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This Bioengineering Startup Just Raised $90 Million To Make Your Veggie Burger Taste Better





One of the ag tech world’s few unicorns is spinning off a new food ingredients company called Motif Ingredients with a $90 million Series A.

Motif will leverage intellectual property and facilities from its parent company Ginkgo Bioworks, which was last valued in 2017 at $1.38 billion, when it raised a $275 million Series D. Gingko is known for the ability to rapidly produce DNA for applications from microbes that replace fertilizer to ones that produce perfume fragrances.

At Motif, that technology will be inserted into yeast cells. The yeast is then fermented, as in beer brewing, except that instead of producing alcohol, the yeast creates whatever by-product Motif’s customers want.

These ingredients can be customized to mimic flavors or textures similar to those found in protein products like beef and dairy—a potential game-changer for the budding industry of plant-based foods, which has seen everything from burgers to cheese alternatives gain popularity in recent years.

READ MORE | The Foodies With A Drive For Business

Take Impossible Foods, backed by top investors from Bill Gates to GV. Its soy-and-vegetable-based burger still bleeds like the traditional beef version because of an added ingredient called heme, a molecule found in nearly all living plants and animals.

Impossible’s products rely on this ingredient, which is hard to source. But, as Jason Kelly, Ginkgo Bioworks cofounder and CEO says, Impossible doesn’t manufacture its own heme in-house. And that’s where labs like Motif come in.

“Instead of making another Impossible, we’ll be an ingredient supplier. We’ll supply the Impossible nugget or the egg-free whatever. There are many people who have branding and food development expertise who’d love to make new products in this space, but only a handful have the funding to do,” says Kelly.

“We’re focused on what you’d add to the existing supply chain to make it better. All these companies need it to make a veggie fish stick that tastes good.”

Motif investors include Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Louis Dreyfus Cos., Fonterra and Viking Global Investors.

Ginkgo Bioworks was first founded in 2008, based largely on research developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by scientist Tom Knight, one of the company’s cofounders who came to biology after decades of work as a computer scientist. Knight’s philosophy of synthetic biology is to treat it as akin to computer programming, and Kelly sees his company as being a biological programmer.

“We’re like app developers writing a microbial app,” he said. “And our customers come to us and say, ‘Hey can you make me an app that does this?’”

This is Ginkgo’s second spin-off. In 2017, Ginkgo formed a joint venture with Bayer called Joyn Bio, which leverages the company’s assets and IP to create microbes that can replace or supplement fertilizer for different crops.

That company kicked off with a $100 million Series A round with investments from its parent companies and Viking Global Investors LP.

Similarly, Kelly sees Motif as a company that will operate in the same way for food ingredients, and he expects that as Ginkgo grows, it will spin out others. “We want to keep, in many, many verticals, popping business up that have access to our platform and ask for specs in different markets.”

-Chloe Sorvino and Alex Knapp; Forbes Staff

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Handcrafted In A Cottage, Bottled For The Globe




The sisters had no idea their love for healthy food would catapult them into the international food market.

Siblings and foodies Mosibudi Makgato and Rosemary Padi grew up in a yard filled with fruits and vegetables in South Africa and with a mother who could rustle up any healthy dish using produce from the garden.

It was only natural that they started a catering business as a hobby in 2003.

The growing interest from customers drove the business to become a success until recession hit in  2008. The demand for catering decreased because people had less money to spend. However, the wedding season would always bring more customers for the sisters.

That avenue led to the birth of an idea – to develop an authentic South African drink known in some black communities as gemmer, which is commonly known as ginger beer.

“We catered at a wedding and guests kept saying it would be nice to have gemmer. We did the gemmer and people were raving about it more than the food. From the response we got, we thought this would be a nice way to push it into the industry,” Makgato recalls.

With the help and advice of their mother, the sisters did numerous tests and were impressed with the 18-day shelf life of their product. The pair decided to introduce the beverage at a contact’s shop that sold scones – Vero’s Cakes in the north of Johannesburg.

“Gemmer and scones go well together,” 37-year-old Makgato says.

Business was initially slow. They would deliver bottles at the Vero’s Cake store and two weeks later, the spoiled drinks would have to be replaced because they were not sold. This led to them hosting tastings for market research. As a result, they were able to establish that some people had bad experiences with gemmer in their childhood. 

The duo went back to the drawing board, and worked on changing the perceptions of people and assuring them that they don’t use yeast in their product compared to the traditional way of making the drink. This was a healthier alternative and it was African, which meant it did not contain preservatives, Makgato says.

Rosemary Padi. Picture: Supplied

“We would set up a table, put cups, serve people at weddings and funerals and have conversations about gemmer with guests or attendees. We would invite ourselves to women’s gatherings, ask to be guest speakers and educate people about food, in general, because we are from a green-fingered family.”

In 2010, the sisters left catering completely to focus on the beloved South African drink. They registered their company as Yamama Gemmer after they had mastered their mother’s lessons on how to brew gemmer.

In just two years, people bought bottles without questioning and business was growing. They made enough money to buy their own double-door fridge instead of using the one at Vero’s.

The business finally had assets, at this time, Makgato and Padi were producing from a cottage in Randpark Ridge, about 33kms north of Johannesburg’s Central Business District. The cottage was once a storage facility and kitchen. Now, it has evolved into a factory filled with gas stoves and pots leftover from the catering business.

“In 2013, things were becoming busy; I would always have stock with me, I would go to functions and sell from the boot of my car, and would have to meet people who wanted to buy at petrol stations. People were talking about it. Gemmer was becoming a thing. In 2014, Rosemary left her high-paying position in banking to do gemmer,” Makgato says.

While Padi focused more on the business, it boomed further and they moved to certified premises, with a full-time employee at the store.

“When customers come in, I explain everything about gemmer. Customers are very happy, especially after the first introduction to it, even those that know ginger beer are happy with our product,” says Lynette Seleke, who has been working for the sisters for two years now.

The sister duo has also established distribution channels, reselling throughout Gauteng. Managing stock at Vero’s Cakes was becoming a challenge, so they opened a store in the same area in 2016, located not far from a restaurant selling African cuisine.

“Every year, we almost double the previous year’s turnover since 2016,” Makgato says.

Yamama Gemme has catered at a number of international events in South Africa like the Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair, the Delicious International Food and Music Festival, and they also had a stall at the popular Neighbourgoods Market.

The appeal is in their presentation. They infuse the drink with fruits and herbs and sometimes encourage people to have it with gin or rum, turning the drink into a cocktail.

“We guarantee that you will not have a hangover because ginger beer is a rehydrate. When you have a hangover, it’s because you are dehydrated, gemmer pulls those fluids that you were missing in your body, that’s why athletes love gemmer,” she says.

Padi adds: “Over the years, the demand has morphed to include a ready-to-drink bottle.” The two have since shown interest in the international market and have rebranded, as they have qualified to export globally. They could well be on their way to becoming known as the ginger beer baronesses of Soweto.

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