Meet Bambanze, a genocide survivor turning leather into profit

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Bambanze putting final touches on a shoe at his workshop in Kigali. / Appolonia Uwanziga

When Felicien Bambanze came to Kigali at the beginning of 1994 to look for a job, he was full of hope and ambition. The trained leather maker was lucky to land a job at the then SODEPARAL Industry, which was making leather products. His salary of Rwf12,000 a month was good as per 1994 living standards.

However, Bambanze’s dreams were to suffer a huge setback as the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi paralysed the country a few months into the job. The 49-year-old entrepreneur, was forced to abandon his job to save his life. Besides, his former employer’s factory had been destroyed by the genocidaires.

Bambanze, the managing director of Atelier D’asistance Organise en Maroquinerie et en Cordoniere (ASOCOMA) LTD, however has managed to rise from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix to ‘reclaim’ his life. The genocide survivor says 28 of his family members were killed, and he was left to fend for 12 orphaned children at a young age.

The aftermath

“As a genocide survivor, I went through the stages...from anger to the pain that no words can express. But I chose not to be defined by pain, and I chose to be a better man each day without bitterness,” he says.

Born in Gatsibo District, Eastern Province, Bambanze was staying in Muhima sector, Nyarugenge when the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi broke out.

As the only survivor who had completed school and started working, he had to shoulder the task of looking after the 12 children left by his siblings who perished in the genocide . “I was both their father and mother. With support from Fund for Neediest Survivors of Genocide in Rwanda (FARG), I was able to send them to school,” narrates the father of five.

From the ashes

This (need to cater for the children’s welfare) and the determination not be defined or influenced by the horrors of the genocide pushed him to start making wallets and other leather products from home after the genocide.

Bambanze chose not to be defined by pain, anger or bitterness and retraced his steps to making handicraft and leather products, a move that he says also helped him significantly in the healing process.

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One of Bambanze's employees. / Appolonia Uwanziga

The Nyarugenge-based artisan then used his sitting room and started making shoes, bags, wallets, belts and handicrafts.

He was lucky to have salvaged a shoe-making machine during the genocide and had also found two metres of leather abandoned in town, which he used to kick-start the business. Later, with some savings and support from well-wishers, he bought three other machines worth Rwf1.5 million. Previously, the whole venture was worth about Rwf300,000.

Joining associations

With the business in the initial stages, Bambanze started searching for other people in the same field and they formed an association, through which they received training from the then trade and industry ministry. The 68-member group also received training from other organisations.

“In 2005, I was selected to attend a three-month training in Ethiopia, which equipped me with more skills in tannery and leather making,” he says.

The entrepreneur had the desire to improve the sector and decided to share the skills gained from Ethiopia and, later, in Egypt and started training other members, especially youth.

Achievements

My biggest achievement is that I managed to educate and look after all the 12 children of my relatives, six of whom have completed secondary school while two are university graduates, with support from FARG. Secondly, I have trained 34 young people, and also managed to buy two hectares of land for his brother.

Bambanze wanted to build a vocational school to teach youth tannery and leather making to promote and support the Made-in-Rwanda campaign. “I also need to expand my business, and hopefully, build a big industry,” he adds.

Challenges

The lack of raw materials is one of the biggest challenges faced by Bambanze and other sector players. He says they buy the raw materials from Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia since the local leather industry is still young. He also lacks capital to expand the enterprise.

Advice

Bambanze advises fellow genocide survivors to work hard to improve their lives and also support the country’s development agenda. He argues that work helps the healing process and fosters reconciliation.

What others say

Janvier Muhawenimana, one of the children supported by Bambanze, says the businessman is a good trainer and parent. Muhawenimana says the leather maker educated him up to university which he completed in 2014.

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Hategekimana at work. / Appolonia Uwanziga

Jean-Paul Hategekimana, 17, is Bambanze’s son. The Senior Four student thanks her father for training him during holidays. He aspires to emulate his father and also train other youth.