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May 9, 2011

After the Unthinkable

It's tough enough starting a business, but try launching one in a country shattered by genocide. Four Rwandan women reveal the daring risks they took to become successful entrepreneurs.

Sharon Kahn

Successful entrepreneurs are always noteworthy, but the women on a recent panel sponsored by the Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business were remarkable. The panel, “Doing Business Our Way: Voices of Rwanda Female Entrepreneurs,” featured four women recounting how they created new companies — some in industries entirely new to their country — after one of the most horrific genocides the world has ever seen.

Over three months in 1994, up to 1,174,000 mostly Tutsi men, women, and children were systematically slaughtered by their Hutu neighbors in this East African country with a population of 7.3 million. The nightmare did not stop there. Civil war ensued, with attacks often led by some of the estimated 2 million Hutus who fled to neighboring countries. Today, adult males comprise just 20 percent of the Rwandan population, with women — many suffering from HIV inflicted through rape — forced to head households in this traditionally patriarchal culture. An additional 42,000 homes are headed by children, some not yet teenagers.

But the women visiting Columbia dressed in traditional imikenyero (sari-like silk drapings translated as “elegant dress”) did not dwell on the genocide, except in oblique references to how they came to launch their companies. Soline Mukamana, a former nurse, created Rwanda’s first landscaping business, Saintpaulia Flower Center, after losing 14 close family members during the genocide. Symprhrose Mukampazimpaka, who ran a hardware store with her husband, started Le Petit Prince hotel after he was killed and the store was destroyed in the genocide. Languida Nyirababeruka launched Rwanda’s first funeral parlor, Pompey Funebra Twifatanye, after unsuccessfully trying to rebuild the tailoring business she previously owned.

Running Fast, Dodging Obstacles

These women are graduates of a program sponsored by the Business Council for Peace (Bpeace), a nonprofit built around the concept that business plays a significant role in peace building. In addition to the women Bpeace sponsors in Rwanda, it also provides business advice to women in Afghanistan and El Salvador. “We identify ‘fast runners,’” or entrepreneurs who already run businesses, explained Toni Maloney, cofounder and CEO of Bpeace. “They would succeed anyway, but we put more wind at their backs not by providing money but by offering expertise so they succeed earlier and employ more people.” The Rwandan entrepreneurs were visiting the United States to serve Bpeace-arranged apprenticeships with companies in their industries.

The panel was co-hosted by the Eugene M. Lang Entrepreneurship Center and The Social Enterprise Program, both at Columbia Business School; and the Institute of African Studies and the Center of International Business Education and Research, both at Columbia University. Each woman told her story in Kinyarwanda, the native language of Rwanda, with translation by interpreters.

Mukamana, the landscaper, admitted that “friends thought I was foolish, but I was determined to try gardening, something I was passionate about” even though “landscaping is not a usual business in Rwanda.” She began by planting gardens for clients in the evenings and during lunch breaks from her nursing job. Today, many of these once-skeptical friends are Saintpaulia clients — as is Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president. Soline’s business employs 14 workers.

Nyirababeruka, the funeral home director, faced special challenges. “In Rwandan culture, the topic of death is not easy to talk about,” she said. She started her business, Pompey Funebra Twifatanye, after witnessing the trouble that her community was having preparing funerals for loved ones. “But by providing cars, caskets, and flowers all in one place, I can help mourning families,” she said.

“Commerce Is for Foreigners”

Mukampazimpaka launched her 25-room hotel with the help of a loan from the Rwanda Development Bank. Le Petit Prince Hotel’s manager, Consolata Mukabera, who also attended the event, remarked that “entrepreneurship is not part of our nation’s culture — commerce is for foreigners, and most women still rely on agriculture.” However, when the genocide forced women into head-of-household roles, the government implemented systems to help women and men become entrepreneurs, she noted. Today Le Petit Price Hotel employs 40 people.

Not only are these women successful in their own right — and creating livelihoods for their employees — they are inspiring other entrepreneurs by example. Both Languida and Soline pioneered businesses in industries new to Rwanda and both now report they have competitors. “That's good for me,” stressed Nyirababeruka, as the concept of funeral services becomes more accepted. “Besides, I was first, so I'm still more successful!”

Added Mukabera, “As women-owned companies become successful, other women feel comfortable with starting a business. This ripple effect is changing our culture.”

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