Most rural communities are known to thrive on agriculture, and Muhanga – one of such communities in Rwanda – is no different. A casual stroll around the community would reveal rows of green and neatly arranged mounds interspersed between homes – a testament to agriculture being one of the community’s major bringers of revenue.
Marie Ange Mukagahima grew up in this community in which most of the locales are predominantly farmers. She had grown to appreciate agriculture as a way of life, more than a source of livelihood. And she felt right at home in those fields of green.
But one thing seemed to rile her. Her community grew pumpkins in very large amounts but most of it went to waste mostly because the farmers grew more of it than they knew what to do with. For that reason, pumpkins were the least celebrated siblings of the produce world in Muhanga.
Growing up, everything and everyone around her were constant reminders that the crop was of little importance. Despite the large yields derived from very little input, the low consumption and poor purchasing power that seemed to trail the crop meant that it didn’t get much attention.
Because the locals couldn’t find a use for the crop other than making their local dishes, it was grossly undervalued. As it didn’t seem to have significant importance, a lot of it was left to rot by farmers who shrugged it off as ‘not-worth-the-fuss.’
But some outside-the-box thinking led Mukagahima to conclude that surely there must be another use for the crop other making soups and all she had to do was just look. And she wasn’t wrong.
She dove into research and the revelations were promising. She was seeking ways through which she could add value to the product and that was when the idea of processing the crop jumped right at her.
All that led up to 2016 when she established her company; Zima Enterprise – a pumpkin processing company that makes pastries, flour, roasted seeds, and seed oil – all from a crop that was once relegated to the background as not-worth-much.
Before she went about the research, she had some rudimentary knowledge of the medicinal qualities of the crop and when she dug deeper, she unearthed even more treasures. Apart from being medicinal, the crop is also nutritious – boasting richness in essential fibers, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, while also helping to lower cholesterol levels.
It was obvious that the crop held far more value than most people gave it credit for, and all she had to do was find a way to bring that value to the fore and market it. Mukagahima scoured the internet for recipes and her first move was to attempt baking a special kind of bread from pumpkins.
After months of going back and forth on the idea, she got permission from a bakery in her neighbourhood to use their equipment to bake the first batch. The first batch of pumpkin bread drew positive comments from the friends and neighbours she had handed some for tasting, and that meant she was doing something right.
She was urged to apply for DOT Rwanda’s Social Enterprise in 2017 and despite her initial doubts, she went all the way in the competition and won a small cash prize. That victory set her up for further triumphs and by the time she emerged Outstanding Young Entrepreneur in the Southern Province at the YouthConnekt Awards, her product had gained quite a following.
The victory at the YouthConnekt Awards came with a stint at an incubator owned by Workforce Development Authority (WDA), an oven, a solar dryer, and a cash prize Rwf 1 Mn. By that time, she was already becoming a big deal in those quarters and when she went to the National YouthConnekt Award, few were surprised when she took home another Rwf 5 Mn.
With the funds, she was able to set up her business. She left the incubator early last year and found a place for her bakery, and a shop in town where she sells her products.
Marie Ange Mukagahima seems to have gotten her business off the ground successfully but it wasn’t without bumps along the tarmac. Insufficient funds meant that the business was hampered for extensive spells by lack of necessary equipment and this implied only a few quantities of the pastries could be produced, making it difficult to penetrate the mass market.
Even when the funds came, finding a suitable location for her company – one that checked all the boxes of the Rwanda Standards Board – proved something of a quest. And when that was out of the way, finding buyers for the product was another challenge as she had to get people to see the health benefits of the product.
And that wasn’t always easy. During those first few weeks of starting the business, the Rwandan entrepreneur feared she might have to pack up and close shop. There were no customers and the little capital available was put into the production of the pastries, most of which went bad before they were bought and were tossed.
It was a trying period of the business but she learned lessons on how to find new markets and how to market the product. And it does look like she’s steadied the ship since then.
Her products have been able to gain market acceptance through trade shows, exhibitions, and advertisements which she used to raise awareness on the health benefits of pumpkin – something that has brought in more customers and worked wonders on the bottom lines.
Besides employing people, Mukagahima is now looking to empower and teach youths about the pumpkin business so as to enable them set up small ventures of their own in an effort to combat the worrying unemployment rates in Rwanda.
The Rwandan entrepreneur also works with farmer cooperatives in her hometown, Muhanga, and the eastern province of Rwanda. As president of both cooperatives, she helps negotiate better prices for the farmers, while also providing them with free seeds in exchange for a steady supply of the goods for processing, at subsidized prices.
Featured Image Courtesy: bwiza.com