When he was selected to travel to the United States (US) to take part in the second edition of the Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI), otherwise known as The Mandela Washington Fellowship, Jean Bosco Nzeyimana knew that the sky was the limit for him.
Last year, US President Barack Obama’s Mandela Washington Fellowship invited 500 of Africa’s brightest minds to learn new skills and see innovative entrepreneurial trends. For Nzeyimana it was invaluable.
Having grown up in the rural village of Gikongoro, in the Nyamagabe District of Rwanda’s Southern Province, from parents of humble origins, Nzeyimana’s journey to the top was out of the ordinary; especially when you consider he used trash to get there. Garbage is Nzeyimana’s calling.
In August last year, Nzeyimana met Obama, and other US state department officials, in Washington DC immediately after the US president visited Kenya to host the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi.
A few months later, Nzeyimana presented his business ideas at St James’s Palace, in London, at an African business event called [email protected] in the presence of Prince Andrew. This event, which Nzeyimana says changed his perspective on green business, takes place twice a year and involves more than 300 CEOs, angel investors, mentors and the event’s business partners.
Nzeyimana became an entrepreneur in challenging circumstances. His neighborhood was gripped by poverty and poor sanitation bedevilled the community.
Firewood was used to cook every day. This was problematic as finding wood was daunting and burning it led to health problems. Nzeyimana felt a need to do something about it.
“I needed to be part of a sustainable solution to address lack of power and affordable sanitation and to fight poverty at my rural village in Kitabi, in Gikongoro. My solution was to try composting trash into cleaner cooking fuel and, if possible, to produce other green products too,” he says.
This led to Nzeyimana starting Habona Ltd, a company that produces 20 tons of briquettes per month, in 2013. He did when he was barely 18 and still studying at the University of Rwanda’s College of Business and Economics. Habona currently employs more than 100 people.
“I studied business administration because I needed to lead a private enterprise that could solve myriad problems that my folks faced, especially hygiene and lack of fuel,” says Nzeyimana.
While at college, he researched how waste could be turned into green products, such as biogas, compost or briquettes. He was particularly interested in new approaches that could displace firewood or help his parents access cleaner and cheaper fuels during the rainy season, when access to firewood – the primary source of cooking – was more difficult.
With time, the knowledge he acquired from university helped him to draw up a comprehensive business plan for his project.
With barely any capital, Nzeyimana formed a small team to set up waste collection points in Nyamagabe town. The team gathered waste from people’s homes and hired vehicles to transport them to a central processing point.
Here the waste is categorized and the degradable materials are processed into manure, briquettes and biogas, while the non-degradable are turned into ornaments or sold for further recycling.
“You don’t need money to start off successfully,” he says. “A lack of funds did not discourage us in any way. Instead we needed to think out of the box in order to raise capital to enable our idea to take shape.”
When the African Innovation Prize, a continental business competition for start-ups called for entries in 2014, Nzeyimana entered and won, receiving Rwf2 million ($2,700) in valuable capital for Habona.
Nzeyimana also scooped the 2014 Young Innovator Award in Rwanda and was among 10 Africans who participated in training in New Delhi, India, on running a start-up.
By August last year, while attending the YALI fellowship, Habona was granted around $25,000 from the United States African Development Foundation(USADF) to support Nzeyimana’s waste project.
“The grant will boost our capacity substantially going forward. We intend to employ 10 more workers and increase our briquette making capacity from 20 tons to 50 tons per month,” he says.
Habona sells a kilogram of briquettes for Rwf200 (around $0.30) to people fighting the vicious circle of poverty in Nzeyimana’s rural village.
“There is more value in that the briquettes last three times longer than charcoal of the same cost. This is not only cost effective, but is environmentally sustainable.”
Nzeyimana’s experiences in the US and Britain have led to bigger and bolder ideas.
Since his fellowship in the US, Habona has scaled up its capacity in renewable energy management. Consequently, the company was contracted to run an integrated waste management plant owned by the Nyamagabe District authorities.
At St James’s Palace, Nzeyimana learned to introduce a broader vision of his business.
“I came back charged and armed with a better vision of the potential of my abilities, including where I want to be by the end of 2016.”
The event opened his eyes to the big world of green business.
“I am in the process of setting up an office in Kigali. As an entrepreneur, it is important to spread my wings. My company is in talks with a group of local, regional and international investors to set up something with the same business model, but very huge in Kigali while expanding our operations in Nyamagabe.”
Support for Habona is flooding in.
Nyamagabe District’s Deputy Mayor for Finance and Economic Development, Immaculée Mukarwego, is a firm supporter of the company.
“The project started by Habona Ltd is very good, with a very bright future as it seeks to deal with the issue of waste in a sustainable manner and, in the process, it has a high potential of improving the overall wellbeing of the entire district,” says Mukarwego.
As part of the district’s long-term plans, a plant and dumping post was built at a cost of more than $500,000 to help Habona to increase its activities.
It’s a good start for a rural village boy who started off with nothing but an ambitious dream to fight poverty.