For nearly a year, the vast majority companies have struggled during the coronavirus pandemic, but some small businesses in select sectors are seeing lots of new and returning customers.
Businesses that help people socially distance themselves, and retailers that enable people to eat and drink at home have benefitted wildly. In addition to , of course, healthcare and biomedical related services who have seen a strong increase in demand.
For Nelly Aline Uwineza, the CEO of Tropical Breweries, the onset of the pandemic after a huge investment in her company provided a great opportunity. She was originally planning to start a wine production facility in Kigali, but the quickly destabilizing market forced her to change her plans.
Early on during the COVID – 19 pandemic, the Rwandan government mandated frequent hand washing and use of hand sanitizers in public places and at home. Thus, the demand for these products skyrocketed. Uwineza went to buy hand sanitizer from a pharmacy, and was shocked at the prevalence and severity of price gouging. The price of a 50ml bottle of hand sanitizer had more than doubled: from Rwf 12,000 to Rwf 28,000.
This shock resulted in a new business idea for her. Originally a scientist per her degree, Uwineza spent a few short days doing laboratory tests using imported Aloe Vera products and ethanol. A new product was born from her short experiments, which, according to Uwineza, has the capacity to kill 90% of the germs that cause infections.
Uwineza put the wine factory plans on the back-burner, and started mass producing the new hand sanitizer she formulated. She started with a daily production rate of 400 litres, but has the capacity to make 1,000 litres per day. “I don’t think I will ever stop this business.” she told us.
In essence, her idea of producing hand sanitizers would not only be of great benefit to herself, but also had the potential to create demand in the aloe vera industry; indirectly creating the potential to keep over 3000 women farmers employed in the near future.
Today, producing ‘Tropical’ hand sanitizer, Uwineza directly employs only seven people, up from just one employee in April 2020 when the business opened.
At her factory in Gikondo suburb, Uwineza’s lowest paid employee earns Rwf50,000 per month . Some are getting as much as Rwf400,000 – which is a monthly salary of a university graduate in the private and public sector.
By the end of 2020, Uwineza had hoped to “break even” and make a return on her investment. By that time, she hoped to be supporting approximately 60 women co-operatives producing Aloe Vera. The veracity of the employment figures Uwineza’s claims have not been independently verified, so take these findings with a grain of salt.
“Despite the tough competition, as many hand sanitizer producers have emerged, I have no regrets. Actually, I have attained 70 percent of the plans I sent out to implement,” proudly says Uwineza.
Before the pandemic, FabLab, a franchise and innovation space, trained young people to produce novel hardware solutions. Keeping with their roots of hardware design and production, they are now making face shields to aid PPE supply in midst of the pandemic.
Danny Bizimana, one of the firm’s engineers and the General Manager, says since April 2020, they have been producing at least 500 face shields per day. So far, over 40,000 units have been sold by the firm, with steady demand increasing that number day by day.
“The business has exceeded our expectations,” said Bizimana.
Each face shield retails for Rwf2,500. Some quick maths suggests lucrative returns, although exact numbers have not been disclosed by the firm.
With many consumers afraid to leave their homes, or, are under government orders to shelter in place, professional delivery services have stepped in to capitalize. Driven both by an interest to make sure goods are accessible to people unable to shop for themselves, as well as a large profit incentive, delivery businesses and their suppliers are thriving.
In this market, big players like Vuba Vuba have obviously seen major growth in their food and grocery delivery business. But other small-time entrepreneurs have also stepped in to “take a slice of the pie.”
Last month, Gustave Gahindiro, 28, launched ‘Rukundo Meat and Veggie Pie’. It is a mobile food-item vending and delivery business.
He returned to Rwanda from South Africa where he had been studying, but put off school amid financial constraints. Gahindiro uses the kitchen of his mother Peninah Uwimbabzi, a University of Rwanda lecturer, located in Kimironko where he operates a door-to-door personal pie delivery business.
He was clever in his business strategy, and actually, the Rwf30, 000 starting capital was borrowed from his mother. Gahindiro wakes up early to prepare the pies and by 9am he walks or takes a taxi-moto from Kimironko to Remera sector (in Gasabo district), eyeing the existing large business community comprised of supermarkets, offices, pharmacies and restaurants around the Gisementi area in Kigali city.
“Many Rwandans don’t know pie, and mistake it for a drinking straw when I introduce my delivery. My target is middle class clients. I get more than 30 clients a day, in addition to deliveries to offices and supermarkets,” Gahindiro said amid laughter.
Gahindiro says he plans to raise as much money to pay his student debt back in South Africa, then resume his studies. He said he will not abandon the business, instead plans to train people to keep it running in case he has to go back to school.
Creative industry awakens
With social events such as concerts now a distant memory, local clothing and modeling agencies have had to think outside the box to keep their businesses going.
Charlotte Shema, founder of ‘Touch of Rwanda Fashion Designs’, started out her fashion shop two years ago with only one sewing machine and a small space to operate from. The business had grown to 10 machines, and now uses them to make face masks, not designer clothes.
Shema makes 3 types of masks, which cost between Rwf3,000 and Rwf5,000. To date she has distributed more than 2000 masks to companies, restaurants, and tourists. In addition to these deliveries, she has had many more direct pickups from her store.
Shema said: “Touch of Rwanda will be making face masks until this pandemic ends. We make quality masks that have elastic edges. The demand is there, including from local and foreign tourists who buy them as gifts for their families back home.”
Shema took advantage of the December loosening of restrictions to hold a fashion event for her clothing line, dubbed ‘ARISE’ at Onomo Hotels Kigali.
“I’m lucky I was able to put together such an event, which has been the only one so far,” proudly said Shema.
In July 2020 she started “Touch of Rwanda Sewing Courses” even in these hard times, to train women so that life never stops. Starting with 4 students, who come twice a week, each one has different hours to study in order to maintain social distancing requirements. The sessions will last 3 months. Next month, a new intake of students is due.
“These courses helped me and my tailors to be occupied, and have a little bit of income,” she said.
The big firms are also making money
While the economy has faced tough times for the entire year, the Rwanda Stock Exchange, the local bourse, attracted new listings and trading has boomed.
Two new companies have been added to the exchange. South African owned cement maker Cimerwa PLC, and health provider RH Bophelo Limited, also from South Africa. 12 firms are now on the bourse, with more planned later in 2021.
The bourse managed to trade Rwf313billion from January 1 to December 31, 2020 compared to Rwf199.28billion in the same period ending 2019 – which is a 57.08% growth. These numbers are especially impressive during the unprecedented times we are all living through.
Edits made Jan 13 for context and clarity*