I first met Berthilde Niyibaho during an agribusiness workshop and expo in Kigali last year, where she was selling mushroom powder and banana wine. The passion with which she was talking about her products and agro-processing, as well as youth and agribusiness, set her apart from the crowd. I visited her factory located in Gasabo recently so I could tell her story.
The 57-year-old resident of Kacyiru sector, Gasabo District says she ventured into the business world out of need – to provide for her children, particularly ensuring a sustainable source of income to pay for their education.
Niyibaho says she started small by making banana brew in 2005. “Later, I expanded the project and embarked on mushroom farming and production,” she narrates. Her firm, BN Producers Limited, is an enterprise mix that deals in crop and animal production.
She opened her first business after completing secondary school. The enterprise has been able to thrive, thanks to her hard work and trainings by different agencies and support from the business community and government.
Niyibaho says the government, through the Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB), helped her go for trainings in mushroom farming and processing in China. “While I was in China, I learnt that mushrooms can transform people’s lives through improved incomes and nutrition. So, when I came back, I was able to produce my own mushrooms tubes. This helped me to expand and transform the project into a fully-income driven one,” Niyibaho narrates. She adds that’s when she merged the two sections of her enterprise – brewing and mushroom growing – “because mushrooms had not yet started generating income in money”.
Lessons from Holland
In 2010, Niyibaho was selected by Rwanda Development Board’s Centre for Support to Small-and-Medium Enterprises for training in the Netherlands on how to make mushroom seeds.
“This was a huge boost as we could now access seeds locally and cut on import expenses. Previously, we used to import mushroom seeds from China,” she says.
She notes that when she returned, she set up a modern seed-making facility and food testing laboratory with help of her husband, who is knowledgeable in civil engineering.
Production and marketing
The enterprise has the capacity to produce 46,400 cartons of banana wine and 120,000 mushroom tubes per year, as well as 65,625 kilogrammes of fresh mushrooms and 6562.5 kilogrammes of dried mushrooms and mushroom powder per year.
The firm sells a bottle of wine at Rwf1,500 (factory) and between Rwf2,000 and Rwf2,500 retail. It makes up to Rwf18 million annually, according to the entrepreneur. Niyibaho sells her products locally, as well as in Uganda, Tanzania, and Bukavu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The businesswoman provides market for fish, sunflower, banana and soya bean farmers. She adds that the firm bought three tonnes of sunflower from partner farmers last year.
The farmer cum processor says the company is in process of acquiring the standardisation mark (S-MARK) and the International Standard Organisation (ISO) certification for its products to boost their competitiveness.
She never went to university, but Niyibaho is proud to provide employment to skilled Rwandans and graduates, four of whom have master’s degrees, including an engineer and an agronomist in mushroom growing, as well as two food scientists.
Some of her children who are also graduates work for the firm.
Why enterprise mix
Niyibaho says she ventured into mushroom growing for home consumption, but not as a business. However, this was to change when she participated in an agriculture and livestock exhibition in August 2006, where she learnt more about mushrooms, especially their nutritional benefits. The fact that those who tasted her mushroom soups liked them also influenced her to undertake the project on a commercial basis. Now, her business aims at availing mushrooms all year round.
“My project aims at increasing nutrition and good feeding as well as hygiene and sanitation in the country. When we started in 2005, we were making two banana wine brands called Imena and Intego. We later learnt that we could use the remains of bananas to grow mushrooms besides working as organic manure. So, we introduced mushroom farming (on a small scale) in 2006,” Niyibaho explains.
Apart from educating her children, Niyibaho says she has advanced from the old way of producing banana wine (urwagwa) to making bottled wine. “I also bought a car that facilitates delivery of our products to clients compared to when I used to carry banana brew on my head in the past,” she notes.
She says she conquered fear and stereotypes to make it in business, and advises women to avoid fear and take on business world that has traditionally been a men’s domain.
Niyibaho is happy to have trained dozens of women and other people involved in mushroom growing across the country. The factory has two separate businesses, a banana wine section and another for food processing.
Despite the progress thus far, Niyibaho says she faces a number of challenges, including lack of modern equipment in the food processing section.
“We also lack some laboratory materials. I believe we can do much more and expand further if we secure the equipment,” the processor says. She says the road from the factory is very dusty, noting that this affects equipment and could also contaminate food products. The firm, like many others in the country, also has a challenge of packaging.
“We need modern packaging materials that can attract buyers on the regional and international market.”
Despite these challenges, Niyibaho is grateful for government support that enabled her to acquire skills in mushroom growing and processing from China and the Netherlands.
The entrepreneur plans to join efforts geared at fighting malnutrition, and hopes to acquire more equipment to be able to process enough in quality mushroom products.