Former street child makes a fortune from horns

For many, cow horns are only fit for the garbage. What with the smell and the somewhat less appealing appearance. But wait a minute! You could be missing out on a life-changing opportunity if you still harbour such views, according to Jean Marie Vianney Habiyaremye who has made cow horns “his business”.
Some of the formers boys working with Habiyaremye.  /John Mbaraga.
Some of the formers boys working with Habiyaremye. /John Mbaraga.

For many, cow horns are only fit for the garbage. What with the smell and the somewhat less appealing appearance. But wait a minute! You could be missing out on a life-changing opportunity if you still harbour such views, according to Jean Marie Vianney Habiyaremye who has made cow horns “his business”.

The Bugesera District-raised young entrepreneur has created a business by making artifacts from cow horns. What’s more, Habiyaremye is a former street child who has found hope in crafting the hitherto neglected and dumped horns into first-class handicrafts, including ornaments. He says he was forced to the streets after dropping from school in Primary Five in 2008. 

The founder and president of Kicukiro-based Cow Horns Kigali, an enterprise that produces different types of jewelry and ornaments from cow horns and hooves, says his father was serving a jail term at the time.

“My father was in prison and our living conditions were going from bad to worse. So in 2009 I decided to come to Kigali in pursuit of a better life. But luck was not on my side as I spent six months sleeping on the street of Kigali,” he narrates.

As they say, you can’t keep a good man down. During the same year, Habiyaremye and six of his colleagues on the street were approached by a Japanese woman who offered to teach them vocational skills.

That was to be the turning point for Habiyaremye. “She said she would hire a house and cater for all our basic need besides teaching us hands-on skills,” he explains of his journey as an artisan. He says though they were sceptical they went with her anyway.

“Fortunately, all things went well for the three months we spent learning the art of making ornaments from cow horns,” he adds.

Habiyarenmye says that after completing the course, he requested their benefactor to help take him back to school.

“She welcomed the idea and assisted me get school requirements and paid for my studies until I completed secondary school in 2015,” he explains. He adds that he would join the benefactor and the other group members during the holidays to work at their workshop.

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Habiyaremye (left) and one of the apprentices arrange the different products made at the workshop in Kicukiro. They make bracelets, buttons, key holders, earrings, and bowls.  / John Mbaraga. 

Branching into entrepreneurship

Habiyaremye says by the time he completed high school, the Japanese woman had left the country. So, he wrote to her that he wanted to reopen the business and operate it professionally. “She did not sound enthusiastic about it as she used to because my former colleagues had defrauded her and returned to the streets,” he explains.

As he waited for his benefactor to respond, Habiyaremye started visiting artisans engaged in making ornaments and discovered that none of them was using cow horns.

“Around the same time, I was lucky to join DOT Rwanda where I attended a business and entrepreneurship training course. I pitched my project and they welcomed it, urging me to join others in the same line of business,” he says.

He says an old man he had met at the annual Private Sector Federation expo helped him start his enterprise.

“The old man was from Nyabihu District. Though he knew how to make artifacts from horns, he didn’t have the latest skills to make quality products,” he recalls.

Habiyaremye says he visited the old man who agreed to work with him during the initial stages of the venture. Luckily, his Japanese benefactor gave him a deal to make jewelry for her worth Rwf300,000.

“With my partner, we produced the jewelry using his small machines. We were able to deliver the order within a few days,” he adds.

He says when the old man returned to Nyabihu, Habiyaremye hired all his machines. This helped him to produce many products in a relatively short time.

“Fortunately, people liked my artifacts so I didn’t have problems selling them,” he points out. Today, he says, success of the enterprise has overwhelmed him eight months since its inception.

Market access

Habiyaremye produces different handicrafts, including cups, plates, clothing buttons, key holders, horns for decoration, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, brooches like breastpins, clasps or clips, and business cards. The young entrepreneur says he has contracts to supply four fashion houses with buttons. He also operates from two selling points in Kicukiro and Remera.

“Actually, I have a huge market that I cannot satisfy. People have fallen in love with my products and the market is growing by the day,” he says. “Some local textile firms have started approaching me to discuss the possibility of supplying them with buttons, but I want to first expand before I can accept these big offers,” Habiyaremye adds.

A ring at Habiyaremye’s workshop costs Rwf2,000, an earring goes for Rwf3,000, bracelet Rwf1,000, one button is at Rwf100, you will have to part with Rwf2,000 for a key holder, while a cow horn bowl goes for Rwf6,000, an a cup is at Rwf4,000, and horn of decorations going for a cool Rwf20,000. Currently, Habiyaremye estimates his enterprise to be worth over Rwf1.2 million.

Social impacts

Habiyaremye has not forgotten his roots or the generosity of the Japanese lady that helped turn around his life for the better. He is also engaged in charity work, training street children in crafts making. He also employs those that complete training.

“I learnt the importance of impacting communities, trough sharing skills and income to improve people’s lives when I was at DOT Rwanda. Besides, if it wasn’t for the help from the Japanese woman, who got us off the streets and helped to reintegrate us into society I wouldn’t be where I am today. So, I have to help others as a way of saying “thank you” to her and all those that have supported me on this journey,” he says. Currently, Habiyaremye employs two permanent workers and seven apprentices.

“There are seven trainees, two of whom are doing their high school and join me during holidays. We also have three new youngsters from the streets, and high school leavers who are learning the trade,” he says.

Future dreams

Habiyaremye is planning a business trip to Kenya in February to explore the market in East African Community’s biggest economy.

He also hopes to acquire better equipment “so that I can be able to improve production capacity”.

“Kenyans have a lot of experience in this area, so I want to learn from them and, hopefully, be able to move my business from small enterprise to a mini-industry as well as grow my network along the value chain,” he says. He also plans to secure a loan to expand his firm and open branches across the country. I envision our company taking on the region’s best and making huge inroads that will help us dominate the region’s jewelry and ornament market segments, he says.

Advice

Habiyaremye urges the youth to be industrious and to avoid bad company if they are to make it in life. He says it is also essential to focus on self-employment. “When youth understand the value of owning a business, that will be a major step toward a secure future, one that will transform their lives and help improve communities in which they live,” he argues.

 What others says about Habiyaremye

Angelique Niyigena, a 19-year-old high school leaver working as an apprentice at the workshop, says she first saw Habiyaremye at a recent exhibition at Petit Stade Remera in Kigali and was impressed with his products.

“That is when I decided to join him and learn how do ornaments. With these skills, I will not seek for jobs or whine about unemployment. My intention is to work hard and challenge girls and women who depend on others,” she says.

Claude Habanabashaka, 18, is a former street boy who was trained and is employed at the workshop. He says he has managed to put his life “back on track” because of the opportunity Habiyaremye gave him. 

“I returned to school and I have now completed Senior Three. I am also able to rent my own house and buy food and other basics of life without problem. I am sure my future will be different from my past. I have “the line” for the future,” he notes.

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Nirere, one of the apprentices, cuts a horn as others watch. The firm is currently training seven youngsters in  making ornaments.  / John Mbaraga.

 

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