Rwandans can be a bit hesitant when it comes to buying food, let alone eating on the streets. It is perhaps a cultural thing. Where some of us were raised, eating in the open is looked down upon. Cooking or eating food is reserved for indoors. It is a cultural shock many people from neighbouring countries such as Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, have to deal with. Even when Rwandans travel to these countries, you will not see them eating in the open. However, eating on the streets can be done in a decent manner. When Patrice Shema Gateja set off from the UK to introduce the culture of street food in Rwanda, he knew it was a cultural reality he had to change because street food is not necessarily a bad thing after all. ALSO READ: Eat as you go: A rising vendor’s dream to open society’s mind to food trucks Having lived in the UK for many years, in 2018, Shema thought it was the right time to go back home and start something that would make a difference, even against cultural beliefs. “I realised that people actually needed to eat at night and I thought I would bring in the street food, a mobile kitchen which can find customers, not customers finding me,” says Shema, the founder of PatsBangers. “I built this little mobile kitchen, which is quite small but accommodative with everything and can provide food for Rwandans at night. People do like eating at night, especially when they go out clubbing, partying and others like it delivered to their houses,” he adds. When we arrived in Kacyiru, at People discotheque, near the former Umubano Hotel, where his food truck is currently located, Shema was busy, attending to orders and working with his team to prepare for the night. He is a humble and hands-on man who has been consistent in pursuing his dream, and from the look of things, street food is becoming a thing, at least in some parts of Kigali. We were supposed to have the interview at 9pm but he asked for a few minutes to set up. The majority of his clients come at night. Just when other restaurants are closing for the day, Shema and his team are preparing to feed Kigali’s ‘nocturnal’ community. It is a dream he visualised while still in the UK when he thought Rwandans could use a bit of gourmet food. And there are enough natural products that can provide the food people in the city need at night, such as sausages, buns for burgers, cheese, and a lot of organic foods and vegetables. “Gourmet food is food that is really made from home, from scratch, with everything. I was inspired by the way food is affordable, it’s tasty, and less costly. “In terms of paying rent, it’s actually even cost-effective. It’s cheaper to move around as long as it doesn’t take up much space and everything is all confined inside. So, I thought, maybe the public needed to get this experience,” he says. ALSO READ: My running obsession with ‘ibiraha’ He was well aware that Rwandans do not fancy what they call ‘kurira ku gasozi’, or eating from outside, but he says it is not what most people think, and what he does proves that it is a culture worth exploring. “When you talk about street food or ‘kurira ku gasozi’ as a forbidden culture, it’s not what you think. As you see me, I cook and even pack food, the same as when delivered when you order from a restaurant. “The only difference is that it’s a restaurant or a kitchen that moves. It’s on wheels, but on the other hand, you can still get the same kind of food from another restaurant that actually pays rent and is statically located in one place.” He says it’s not about eating on the street, you can simply buy your food and go with it and eat from wherever you want. “The beauty of it, is I cook for you as you watch,” Shema says, explaining the advantages of street food. The kitchen on wheels can also be moved to any convenient place, a festival, park, concert, exhibition, picnic, yard, or garden. For the past three years, Shema says people have warmed up to the culture. They love it “People have tasted it. I’ve given time for people to experience my meals and people really love it,” he says, adding that PatsBangers now has a good following on social media. Today, he even makes deliveries too. Many people get curious to know how he goes about what he does out of curiosity and some have tried to copy what he does but it doesn’t work. It hasn’t been a smooth journey. It has been one of ups and downs but most importantly, his target was to see a mindset change and it is happening. Shema’s biggest challenge was the outbreak of Covid-19, just when he was setting up shop. It was a testing moment that he will never forget. He had just finished building the food truck. It is an opportunity he saw and took up, even though it was challenging to get onto the roads or different spaces. His hope was to try gourmet food in the Car Free Zone but access and restrictions held him back. “The other challenge is the constant training of workers because they need to understand the art,” he says, pointing out that he has to personally train them until they get confident. “Now I’ve reached a point where I can leave them and do other gigs,” he says, adding that they now know how to do all the dishes on the menu. Most of those he employs are youth from underprivileged backgrounds, or who never had a chance to have a proper education. Today many have earned income-generating skills and have learned the English language on the job. It is something that Shema, who also doubles as an artiste and now fashion designer, prides himself in because his dream was to do something that would empower others in the community. Similarly, through his business idea, a farmer down in Rwamagana is able to get a market for their produce, since they strictly use organic products, right from the farm. Most popular items on the menu Currently, a hot dog made with pork sausages, which I had an opportunity to taste, is one of his most popular items on the menu, along with cheese and beef burgers. He uses organic ingredients and natural herbs to season dishes, all of which are sourced locally. The meat is gluten-free. The wraps too, or what many call ‘rolex’ are on demand for night eaters. Due to the demand, Shema is looking to expand the menu and introduce new innovative meals for his clients, but he is careful not to be overwhelmed by the demand because they make most of their products such as bread and buns. He says he is also focused on making the food as healthy as possible because Rwandans are becoming more conscious about what they put in their bodies, with some even going vegan. “The number of vegetarians is growing. Without a doubt, we had to add vegetable burgers or vegetable meals in any form. We even provide vegetable ‘meatballs’,” he says. There isn’t much money to make from it except for keeping the passion going, but the truck does make some money. It gets hired for events such as birthdays, festivals, or even concerts, where they come and provide food to partygoers. Today they can feed an event of as many as 50 people but something he says people need to warm up more to, even event organisers, because it is less costly and less strenuous than hiring a catering company for example. It is common practice that happens in big cities in developed countries and as Kigali continues to grow and expand, such a culture and experience is a timely one. “I want to create a change in the community,” he says, adding that he is proud of the cooks he has trained and nurtured, especially those who did not have hopes of making a breakthrough in society due to their underprivileged backgrounds. He doesn’t just train them to work for him but rather equips them with the skills and confidence to even make it on their own, start their personal businesses, or get hired in bigger hotels. That is what makes him proud. Even if they go, they will leave with the right attitude, customer care, language skills, and humility, because that is what he teaches them—letting the food speak for itself. Making aprons from scratch When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Shema ran out of aprons. The ones he had were faded and that is when he got an idea. One morning he decided to ask on the Expats in Rwanda forum on Facebook if any of the members had old denim jeans they wanted to discard and donate to him. “I got some of the tailors at one of the tailoring workshops in my neighbourhood who needed work to put food on the table during the Covid-19 pandemic,” he recalls. On his bicycle, he moved from place to place collecting the jeans, putting them together, and then washing and pressing them and starting the design and patchwork. With the pandemic affecting his street business, the aprons turned out to be a new brand through up-cycling. “I absolutely didn’t know it was a trend in Europe. I had visitors coming in, they looked at my aprons and said you know this is an amazing project you have here. “You’ve got to come and lecture our students in Switzerland. So, I went to Switzerland and sold all of them and came back,” he says, pointing out that all 60 he had taken were sold out. In Rwanda, his friends bought the last stock and that is how he thought to himself that this could be a new and lucrative brand to add to his product line. He hasn’t looked back since. An idea thought through Shema did not wake up one day to walk into the gourmet food industry. It is something he had thought about and planned since 2014 and went on to save so that he can start out, which he did in 2018. His dream was to do it in Rwanda, a country his family left as refugees in 1959 when ethnic tensions increased, ending up in Kenya and later Uganda, where he pursued his early education, before heading to the UK. His family returned in 1996. Cooking is a passion he picked up early when he was four or five years old when he would join his mum in the kitchen to cook. He also started early to appreciate art and being creative because he was a curious child. Born in Jinja, Uganda, and raised on the East African coast of Mombasa, Shema’s travels and experience through different countries shaped his culinary skills, giving him an opportunity to experience and practice cuisines from different continents. The 48-year-old holds a bachelor’s degree in arts and design specialising in graphics from University Centre Croydon - United Kingdom, formerly Croydon College of Art.