Portrait of a Client

The noon-day heat of equatorial sun beat down on tin roofs and dirt roads. It was quiet, the sounds a little muffled outside the paint shop of Rwandese Kiva client Marie Chantal Mukasafali.

“The business is good here,” she says, “thank goodness our inventory doesn’t spoil.”

Marie Chantal, operator of this small enterprise for well over a decade, has kept her eyes open for opportunities. She chose to begin a paint shop, she says, because housing construction became a large market in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, during which many buildings were appropriated or destroyed.

“I got the seed capital for my business by selling my former house.”

Today, Marie has bought another, larger house than the one she sold for her business, complete with a dining room and indoor plumbing.

Marie’s story is by no means an anomaly among the many Rwandan micro-finance borrowers funded by VFC. All around, the clients visited demonstrated keen business acumen, quick to take advantage of any opportunities they could find.

One farmer on the Rwandan-Congolese border-town of Gisenyi has taken advantage of his location to export tomatoes to Congolese merchants. A retail seller of clothes and shoes near Kigali treks to Kampala, Uganda (a nine-hour bus ride) instead of the nearby capitol to get cheaper goods to sell in his shop. An owner of a fabric store in the south of the country sells not only to her own neighborhood, but also across the border to land-locked Burundi.

Entrepreneurs who have some more savings plow their earnings back into the business, often with master strategies.

Small grocery shop owners invest in wholesale purchases of goods – beans, rice – during the harvest season, so that they can sell them for higher values during the later months. “This grain was 250 RwF per kilo when I bought them,” says shop-owner Yvette Mukamana. “Now they are 350.”

Irene Nsabyimana, a cook for a children’s school, has even invested money in school dormitories, so that more children can board at school and eat from her business.

This diversity of business strategies is no oddity. Many clients are involved in several businesses at once. For instance, one shop owner conducts buses in his off-hours. Another drives a motorcycle-taxi to make some extra money.

The work ethic encountered in the clients I have interviewed in the past few months is matched only with their generosity. A majority of families in Rwanda (almost all of the clients interviewed) are taking care of foster dependents. Many are teen-age orphans who lost their families in the 1994 Genocide.

“The vulnerable children come from so many places,” says John, my Kiva colleague here at VFC. “Some of them, their parents were killed. Others, the parents are in prison for what they did.” Then there are offspring born of rape. Families have taken in the children from all sides, as many as could be provided for, though the associated cost is often difficult.

“The school fees are very high,” says Marie Chantal.

But for the entrepreneurs, and the families they care for, Rwanda is a nation of hope and growth.

“I want to take English lessons,” says Claudette Nyiragicari, a fabric-store owner. Rwanda has just recently moved to eliminate French in favor of English in public schools. “And when can I get another loan? This loan was not enough.” She has already made enough money to pay off her current loan, months ahead of schedule. Gesturing to the bundle at her feet, she says, “I was only able to buy a few bundles of fabric.”

The call for financing is echoed all over the country. Many shared their future plans and hopes.

One convenience shop owner expressed her desire to start a hair-salon business. Another wants to start a wholesale trade, which offers better returns and faster turnover than retail.

Even John, Marie Chantal’s husband, shared his goals. “I’m going to driving school now, and want to buy a car for a taxi-service.”

Each in her own way, the clients interviewed in Rwanda are modestly working towards a better standard of life.

“I’m able to buy some more food for the kids,” says Domina Ngirimana, a mother of nine.


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