Thousands of women suffered immense violence during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and much of the country’s economy was destroyed. Rwandan women have played a large role in rebuilding the country, from the banks to the market to the country’s families and cultural institutions. Women launched the first funeral parlors in Rwanda, opened hotels and started other independent businesses, employed people and stabilized the economy.
On April 12, six Rwandan female entrepreneurs spoke at the Columbia Business School about how they started their businesses.
These women included Soline Habilyayo Mukamana , a former nurse, owns a landscaping and garden business center named Saintpaulia Flower Center, and employs fourteen people. Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, is one of her clients.
“When it comes to work, women can create jobs and help people to help themselves,” Ms. Mukamana said. “Entrepreneurship is a big thing, it helps create jobs. It’s a big thing for the entire country.”
Before Ms. Mukamana started the business, landscaping was a major hobby of hers. When she was working as a nurse, she had plants in her backyards, and loved to read articles about gardening. She also loved to give her friends plants.
“Landscaping was in my blood,” she said. She used her salary to save money for pots and plants, and bought basic things. “Juggling the jobs was how I started,” she said, recalling her entry into the business world.
Symphrose Mukamazimpaka, who runs the Petit Prince Hotel in Rwanda, spoke about starting a capital-intensive business, which required a bank loan. Before she launched the hotel, she worked for a hardware business.
“I needed banking help,” she said, and spoke of how she applied for a loan from the Rwanda Development Bank, which she secured. “I had to be brave. In the culture, women were not thought of in business for big projects, but I had to stand strong and firm.” She had some collateral which helped her get the loan, and also wrote out a business plan.
Consolata Mukabera helps Ms. Mukamana manage her business. “Entrepreneurship was not a culture in Rwanda, our nation. Most Rwandans rely on agriculture as a way to earn a living,” she told the crowd in New York City. “It’s very much in the culture that a woman be a housewife and take care of the business in the home. Entrepreneurship was mainly for foreigners in the country. Women did not dare to do anything.”
Ms. Mukabera said their business has drawn upon the Ministry of Family and Children for support, which has helped them gain business skills, and also learn how to balance their work with raising children. After the genocide, many Rwandan women had to become the breadwinners for their family.
Many men had been killed, and Rwandan women ventured into the economic sphere during the reconstruction of their nation.
“There is peace,” she said. “Women are happy about what they are accomplishing for themselves.”
All of the Rwandan women that spoke were part of the Business Council for Peace, known as Bpeace, which is a nonprofit network of business professionals, based in New York City. The council works to create jobs, believing that employment and peace go hand in hand.
Bpeace works with entrepreneurs like Ms Mukabera to improve their business success, and bring stability to their lives. Bpeace also works in other countries that have suffered from conflict, such as Afghanistan and El Salvador.
Columbia University hosted the event, and Murray Low, director of the Eugene M. Lang Center of Entrepreneurship which co-sponsored the event with Bpeace, moderated the panel discussion.
The Sanford C. Bernstein and Co. Center of Leadership and Ethics, an umbrella group for leadership and ethics activities at Columbia, The Institute of African Studies, and the Center of International Business Education and Research, were other co-sponsors.
The audience asked the women about entrepreneurship, and Rwanda’s relationship with the larger East African community. Gisele Rutagengwa, a Rwandan translator that lives in the diaspora, spoke to the women and then offered their response in English.
“We are eager to include other countries in the East African community,” said Ms. Rutagengwa. “We are competing with other countries. They [the business women] are traveling to get new ideas to be ready to compete with other East African communities.”
Collectively, the Rwandan women supported by Bpeace employ over 70 people and those employees financially support over 400 family members.
Rwandans and others in the African diaspora turned out for the event, and enjoyed hearing the story of Rwanda’s female entrepreneurs.
Marie Claudine Mukambano, a 32-year-old genocide survivor and artist based in New York, spoke with Ugandans Abroad at the event. “When I heard the ladies, how they make the money, how they struggle, how they fight and what they do be successful, I think this is the kind of entrepreneurship we need,” she said.
She was touched particularly by Ms. Mukamana’s story.
“When I heard the lady was working in the nursing and doing full-time business, at the same time as working in the garden and planting the flowers during lunchtime, evening time and every time she gets a chance, I say these are smart women,” she said, proudly. “It can inspire women, not only in Rwanda but here in the United States, and everywhere in Africa.”
Windia Dieudonne, a 25-year-old Haitian women based in New Jersey, was also inspired by the women’s stories. “What I took out of it, me being a Haitian, to hear of these women being bold, being bold enough to do what they are doing,” she said. “I was just imagining, what if almost every woman, young, old, would start what they are doing?”
Ms. Dieudonne was touched also by the universality of their message. “It was just about being patient and hard-working,” she said. “It made me imagine my own country Haiti. Perhaps God-willing in the future, that will possibly be us.”
Ugandans Abroad also spoke to Adesuwa Enabulele, a 22-year-old Nigerian-American that lives in Jamaica, Queens. “I am truly inspired by these young women,” she said. “They set an example for all African women, and women in general.”