It does not matter how many times one falls, but how they get back up again and weather the storm, goes an old adage. For Joan Uwimbabazi, a graduate of accounting, it couldn’t have been worse. Uwimbabazi received baptism of fire in her early working life when she quit a well-paying job to start a business that collapsed just months later.
“Helpless and with only my husband as a source of solace and income, I had to go back to the drawing board to keep track of my goals in life,” she says. That was in 1997.
A basket of dreams
Schooled in Kenya, Uwimbabazi came to Rwanda in 1995 full of dreams.
“I was convinced I would scoop a big accounting job in one of the main banks in Kigali. However, that was never to be, all I could get was a job as a receptionist at the Kigali International Airport, where I was earning just Rwf30,000 per month,” she narrates her frustration.
Uwimbabazi says she was ‘forced’ to quit the ‘small’ job, opting to work at an ice cream parlour as a manager, where she was pocketing a paltry Rwf40,000. However, running the parlour equipped her with entrepreneurship skills, which influenced her thinking towards starting her own business.
“After a year or so, I thought I had mastered all the tricks of running a business, so I threw in the towel to start my own business. I used my little savings worth Rwf200,000 to open up a small canteen in Kigali in 1997,” she says.
She says that when the business started bringing in about Rwf1m a year, she decided to start a family. Was it a good or a bad idea? Only time would tell…
Uwimbabazi notes that the move was costly for the business. “I focused a lot on my family, which resulted into the collapse of the business as I wasn’t paying attention to it anymore,” she says.
Uwimbabazi says after the business collapsed, she ‘swallowed’ her pride and went back to the airport to look for a job.
“I was lucky to be employed as an accountant and I was earning Rwf100,000, which was enough to keep me afloat.” She notes that she needed something to help her re-launch herself in the business world. “I knew if I gave up, my dream would die a natural death… this job was like an energiser,” she notes.
She says after saving for some time, she reopened her canteen, which she devoted time to “lest history repeated itself”. This eventually became the foundation of her business empire today.
She says after saving enough money, she decided to diversify, and opened a dry cleaning business. “I started with one dry cleaner in Kimironko, but I have since opened two more branches,” she points out. The laundry business seems to have been just the right enterprise to experiment her business acumen.
Uwimbabazi says in 2009 she sold the family car to raise Rwf10m to start and register a forex bureau, Prime Forex Bureau, situated at Kisementi.
Like American boxer Muhammad “The Great” Ali, once put it, it is better to “suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion”. Uwimbabazi has no regrets for daring to dream big and take risks.
Presently, she earns about Rwf120m a year from all her enterprises. Her three laundry businesses in Remera, Kimironko and downtown Kigali are worth Rwf200m. She says her clients are diverse. Serving RwandAir, some big hotels including the Kigali Serena Hotel, universities and hospitals, Uwimbabazi has left no stone unturned.
She has three posh cars, and has since taken on money transfer services at her forex bureau, handling Western Union, Moneygram and DHL. The mother of three also has a hand in cattle keeping, with over 100 cows and a huge chunk of land. She employs over 20 people.
Uwimbabazi says the greatest challenge for forex bureau enterprise is the delay by commercial banks to dispatch dollars and this hurts her business.
“Financial instabilities are a big threat because the forex dealership stands at the centre of financial equilibrium. If there are financial shocks in Europe, America and Asia, the small dealers are hit hardest,” she points out.
She notes that one has to understand financial markets and truck global economic health to be able to predict currency performances, which is very challenging.
The pressure to deliver on time, especially for the dry cleaning business, is sometimes hard to bear, she says, adding that one has to managed properly the situation because “when you have many clients counting on you, you don’t want to lose that trust”.
A look at the economy
Uwimbabazi says the economy still has a lot of opportunities to offer, especially for women who want to do business.
“Doing business in Rwanda is becoming easier by the day. Whenever something is wrong within the economy I can always know it even before central bank says so,” says the seasoned business woman.
How she deals with stress
Uwimbabazi says stress is a result of poor planning. “I always make sure I plan for all my activities, including time to socialise and rest, which helps me to overcome stress.
Never give up on your dream, Uwimbabazi counsels. For those who think that you pay employees to run your business, wake up.
“Leaving your business to employees can be disastrous. Employees sometimes don’t understand the direction you want to take your business. It’s very important to run it yourself…always be there to guide them,” she advises.
And underestimate the woman not, especially the schooled one. “Women should also take education as an important tool to success.”