Unfamiliar sounds of drilling, cutting, smoothing and pounding of hammers scatter before you on entering the workshop.
It is a small built establishment awash with light manual industrial work of innovation, creation, finishing and repair.
The trainees, mostly girls, sit meekly around their Chinese instructors, learning particular tasks through observation, while others take on tasks they have trained and inducted into.
They are all at various stages of engagement; assembling a piece of furniture like chopping up the wood stalks to bits, smoothing, and nailing, while others are immersed in one stage or another of leather tanning, processing towards a stylish fashionable shoe.
This is Masaka Business Incubation Center (MBIC), located in Masaka sector in Kicukiro District, a workshop that was established by RDB with different stake holders in 2011 and was later transferred to Workforce Development Authority in 2015 to support the creation of start-ups SMEs and the growth of existing ones.
The center basically functions as the project’s production line that offers to entrepreneurs business incubation services, training and coaching services, facilitation to access finance, market, information and technology and technology demonstration for leather goods making, bamboo products, cheese and fruits processing.
The Rwandan SME Policy has the vision of creating a critical mass of viable and dynamic SMEs significantly contributing to the national economic development.
The overall aim is to stimulate growth of sustainable SMEs through enhanced business support service provision, capacity building and access to finance, markets and technologies.
One of the strategies to reach the objective consists of setting up Business Incubation Centers & Business Development Services Centers.
According to the MBIC acting manager, Kagango Diogene, the center focuses on four product–chains which were identified for having huge potential in value addition and domestic productivity; milk products, fruits products, leather product and bamboo products.
Leather and footwear products
The workshop is spacious and well equipped with different types of machinery that is used in making leather products.
The leather workshop allows entrepreneurs to use professional leather machinery to design and develop leather products in high demand. It has a capacity of training at least 25 people in one session and making 100 pairs of shoes per day.
As far as the eye can go, different assortments of finished leather products including men’s shoes, women’s shoes, sandals, bags, belts, Filing documents, wallets, are on display all around the workshop filled with trainers imparting skills in the art of making leather products.
On closer observation however, not all of them are students. Some incumbents are former students who were trained at the incubation center but after graduating stayed on the campus to use the free facilities in advancing their skills and turn them into products.
The products made by the incumbents are really good and of good quality where by the incumbents sell them in order to get a startup capital for their future business.
Bending over a leather smothering machine, Iradukunda Prosper who joined MBIC in 2015 says a lot has changed in his life since he acquired skills in shoe making.
“After graduating we stayed on and thanks to the facility; we make our own products using the free facilities as our factory. Because we lacked capital to start elsewhere, we kept at Masaka where we have access to machines, electricity and water,” he explains. Iradukunda is saving enough money to start his own shoe making business which he believes is lucrative. He however says it is important for people to change their mind-set about locally made products.
“Local production of footwear remains negligible and people still have this feeling that it is inferior and poor quality – but they should try our products and compare them with imported footwear, I believe they will start believing in Made-in-Rwanda products,” he says, smiling.
Today, at least 5 to 10 incubates rotate every day in the MBIC workshops making their own shoes for sale which has helped them create jobs.
So far this year alone, over 27 students from TVET schools and private sector completed 3 months training in shoes making and 4 graduates from Gatsibo district formed a cooperative with the support of World Vision to engage in leather tanning and leather items production.
Imparting skills for milk and fruits processing started in January 2013. WDA in collaboration with APEFE (French acronym for Association pour la Promotion de l’Education et de la Formation à l’Etranger) conducted a one week Training of Trainers (ToT) in milk processing at the center last year.
So far, three trainings focusing on skills in making different types of cheese: Gouda, mozzarella, feta, soft cheese flavors and yoghurt have been sponsored and successfully conducted by APEFE at MBIC benefiting about 20 trainers from TVET schools and others from the private sector. The opportunities in processing include fermented milk, yoghurt, cheese, butter, ice-cream, milk powder, ghee, flavoured milk, sweetened milk, among others.
China Aid Bamboo Project and workshop
While the bamboo workshop is no different from the other projects, it is a sight to behold. On entering the building, there is more activity here because of the number of people working their way through piles of bamboo weaving and turning it into all sorts of shapes and furniture.
The Chinese trainers are teaching the art of transforming raw bamboo into products ranging from toothpicks to baskets to boxes to furniture. Trainees in bamboo cultivation have to learn bamboo breeding, management, and cutting technology, while the trainee chooses either bamboo furniture or bamboo weaving or learn both, including the bamboo basket, bamboo chair, bamboo bed, bamboo sofa, and bamboo toothpicks.
At MBIC, so far 63 students for the 2015-2016 have completed bamboo products-making trainings among who 36 graduated on 28th September 2016 at Amahoro National Stadium.
The trained youth created different companies; e.g the Icyizere Bamboo Product Company that comprises of six former MBIC students and Kinigi Bamboo Cooperative with 14 members while Cyanika Bamboo Cooperative has 13 young entrepreneurs.
The center also accommodates a China-Rwanda project in charge of promotion of bamboo. The management of the project is owned by Rwanda Natural Resource Authority, the division in charge of Forests.
According to the Bamboo Project manager Huang Diazhong, China Aid Bamboo Project in Rwanda was started in February 2009 with the first phase running from February 2009-February 2011, the second was February 2011-February 2012, and the third one is February 2013-February 2015.
He explained that the program has had three different phases since its inception. “Each of the phases sets out to achieve specific goals. In the first phase, the strategic target was to train the technical persons and to help alleviate the problem of unemployment among locals, especially the women” he said.
The second and third phases sought to address the issue of environmental and economic sustainability.
The program prepares them to become the technical training instructors and entrepreneurs in the following years. The program also takes advantage of the abundantly available local resources to teach bamboo processing technology, so as to make a contribution to the local export economy.”
Bamboo planting technology covers areas such as: bamboo nursery management, bamboo breeding, bamboo forest planting and management, bamboo cutting technology, while bamboo furniture processing technology includes basic training in things like bamboo cutting, and weaving.
“We realized that to have sustainable development of the bamboo industry, on the one hand, you have to make a contribution to the countryside GDP, and on the other side, to help ease the crisis of soil erosion,” says Diazhong
For this purpose, the project imported three different bamboo species from China. Apart from timber-use bamboo, two other varieties, one with dense foliage, and another with far reaching roots were introduced to check run-off soil erosion.
As of now, most of the project’s field activities and beneficiaries are in Musanze, Northern Province, which has the most favorable soils for bamboo growth.
“In 2009 we planted 6,000 bamboo trees in Nyamagabe, which effectively protected the soil and improved safety for the people there. In Kabuye, we have a park of bamboo trees, including Bambusa Bvulgaris, Arundinaria Alpine, Dendrocalamusstrictus (Roxb.) and Nees.
Teaching and learning Chinese
The workshop sessions are a sight to behold. A few minutes into the facility, it becomes evident that there is a language barrier between most of the trainees, who speak just Kinyarwanda, and the Chinese instructors, most of who speak only their native Chinese.
Somehow, communication goes on, to facilitate the teaching and learning process, instructors rely more on nuance and body language to teach –even sign language where need be.
It is for these reasons that a Chinese class was set up to help students interact with their instructors for better learning.
Chen Xiaoyan, who teaches Chinese at the Incubation Center, endeavors to see all her students learning Chinese.
Because she is fluent in English (and is learning Kinyarwanda fast), Chen and LyuTiatian, the interpreter, act as the central link between the two sides of the language divide.
For this reason, the interpreter spends a good part of his working day around the facility trying to help ease the communication barrier between tutors and students.
Yvonne Mbabazi completed her secondary studies at Saint Aloise Rwamgana in 2010.
With no finances to continue her studies at the university, Mbabazi soon found herself stuck at her parents’ home, with little else to do other than housework.
One day, she heard of a free training course in bamboo furniture making and cultivation. She immediately applied for a place and was admitted a few weeks late. Unknown to her, she was venturing into a whole new world –that of bamboo.
In 2011, Mbabazi joined MBIC in Masaka, and while there, she fell in love with bamboo and has never left.
Taking a break from assembling a small bamboo chair, Mbabazi who is now the manager of Icyizere Bamboo Product Company that comprises of six former MBIC students tells me: “I have learnt many things since I joined this center in 2011, and I am still learning. I can make chairs, tables, and stools of different sizes and models. “The most basic tools we use are compressors for nailing, smoothing planes, and drilling machines,” she says.
Having gone through all the basic drills in handling and processing bamboo, Mbabazi is today more of an employee than a trainee. “I earn a commission from each of the pieces that I make,” she says proudly, in part explanation of why she is still at the center.
The other reason for her long stay at the incubation center is because they are yet to gather sufficient financial capacity to set themselves up in business out there.
The basic workshop tools that they will need to start with (compressors, smoothing planes, drilling machines) require some savings from their modest incomes before they can eventually start their own furniture workshop. financial capacity to set themselves up in business out there.
The basic workshop tools that they will need to start with (compressors, smoothing planes, drilling machines) require some savings from their modest incomes before they can eventually start their own furniture workshop.