Marguerite Nyirabanyaga is one of the hundreds of exhibitors showcasing different products at the ongoing Rwanda International Trade Fair (RITF) at the Gikondo showground in Kicukiro District. The artisan is no ordinary exhibitor; the 69-year-old has attended all the expos since inauguration 20 years.
The maker of various handicrafts, including bags and baskets, has been able to visit and exhibit in Europe and across the East African region thanks to her participation in the first RITF.
“I have represented Rwanda at many trade fairs across the world in countries like Germany, Kenya, and Uganda, among others,” she told Business Times from her stall at the ongoing expo last week.
The weaver boasts of 10 certificates both for capacity building courses and exhibitions she has attended abroad.
During a tradeshow she attended in Germany in 2002, Nyirabanyaga’s skills and handicrafts impressed the Germans and she was rewarded handsomely.
“They asked me what I wanted them to do for me and I told them to build school in Rwanda to support government efforts to educate all our children,” she says. For Nyirabanyaga, getting an education is key especially as she never had a chance to go to school.
During the 2002 expo, Nyirabanyaga was identified and awarded by the Private Sector Federation (PSF) as the first Rwandan to make bags from lint material. She also won a fully paid trip to go and exhibit her products in Germany.
“My unique bags impressed the Germans and they wanted to reward me. When they asked me what I wanted, I told them to construct a school in Rwanda so that the young generation gets more opportunities to get educated and acquire knowledge,” she narrates.
That she never asked for personal things like a house or car amazed her hosts, Germany’s Ministry of Development. The Germans built a primary school in Ngororero District in 2007, which the local Ministry of Education named after her.
Nyirabanyaga RITF experience over the years
Nyirabanyaga says much has changed at the expo with more traders and manufacturers attending the annual event.
“The quality of local products showcased at the trade fair has improved significantly and more foreign traders also attend compared to the initial events,” she says.
She adds that there is more diversity among local participants with the number of youth groups, women and people with disabilities exhibiting going up each year. “This indicates that more Rwandans have embraced an entrepreneurial spirit and are ready to contribute to national development efforts,” Nyirabanyaga.
She welcomes the move by PSF and government to relocate the expo venue to a big place, saying the current showground can no longer accommodate the growing number of exhibitors.
The interview with Nyirabanyaga is periodically interrupted by customers who want her products or are inquiring about the prices. This goes on for over 40 minutes until a friend of hers comes and helps.
The elderly exhibitor says she is motivated to keep showcasing her products at the expo each year because of huge customers demand.
She says many Rwandans and foreigners, mostly Ugandans, keep asking for her products and usually make orders through the year. “So, I have to cater for the growing number of customers and since the expo runs for weeks, I am sure more people, hotels and other firms would want to buy the handicrafts,” she adds.
She says the prices for her products have more than doubled since the first expo, particularly as she keeps perfecting her act and improving quality and creativity. The prices of Nyirabanyaga’s bags range from Rwf5,000 to Rwf20,000 each, depending on size, while those of baskets are between Rwf5,000 and Rwf15,000 apiece. Those who buy in bulk benefit from some discount, depending on the number of items bought.
The growing number of competitors keeps Nyirabanyaga on her toes though she still has an upper hand given the fact that she pioneered the making of lint bags and has developed a network of retailers that support the business.
“I am happy that more skilled young people, especially women have joined the trade which gives them a sustainable source of income. This is important to achieve women empowerment and financial independence,” she says.
What she has acquired
She has been able to construct two houses in Rwamagana District using the money she earns from expos. She has educated her children and, since she is a widow, she played both roles of a mother and father.
Nyirabanyaga has also forged many connections with traders in different countries where she sells her products more often which has expanded her business. She has been able to train people in handicrafts, including making of her trademark bags, at a small fee.
She says using hands to make crafts is tedious, requiring investment in a modern machine that Nyirabanyaga cannot afford. She also imports the raw materials she uses to make the bags from Kenya, which she says is costly.
Building a training centre
Nyirabanyaga plans to start a training centre to teach people how to make handicrafts, including bags and decorative baskets. She is, however, still looking for funding to kick-start the project.