Having graduated in Food Science and Technology at the former Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) in 2004, Mutesi Gasana tried a number of jobs although her calling was in owning a bookshop.
In 2014, she finally started her envisioned career by starting a company called Arise Education, which deals in selling and publishing books. On top of that, she has trained children to be authors.
She had a chat with Business Times’ Joan Mbabazi about her journey into the bookshop business.
What led you to start a book enterprise?
There was a problem of accessibility of books, and people didn’t see any reason as to why they ought to buy or read books. My aim in the beginning was to start up bookshops all over the country. I was looking at opening up at least 30 bookshops. I had faced reality that I couldn’t start 30 bookshops because each bookshop needed about Rwf20m to Rwf 30m to start.
Mutesi while having a book talk with some of her clients at her bookshop in Kimironko.
There were many tempting opportunities that could have diverted me but I knew what I wanted. People should know that if you are set to do something and very passionate about it, a lot of things might try to distract your focus but one has to avoid them.
When did you get interested in the culture of reading?
This happened when I joined secondary school as I had started reading novels. Since I wasn’t in Rwanda by then, my uncle always sent me books that were about Rwanda’s culture, this way, he wanted me to know my culture and language even when I was away from home. This birthed my love for reading.
You said all didn’t go as expected in the beginning, how was the onset?
I had ventured in a new business that had few outlets, the few bookshops that existed had their strengths, and experience, which I didn’t have. I was so green about the whole idea. By then, I didn’t have a budget, I was still working with East African Educational Publishers, a Kenyan publishing house.
Eleven young authors who emerged the winners were awarded in Musanze District in March.
There were a lot of things I was seeing in Kenya that were not in Rwanda. I wanted books to be everywhere, however, I never thought of having an NGO. I was looking at something long term, providing a solution to my community.
So tell us, how you were able to start a business with Rwf50,000 capital?
The money didn’t start a bookshop immediately, I used it for marketing, I could assign people to go to schools, communities to market the books, then came back with orders. In the first months we could sell books on the streets as we hadn’t got a place to rent.
My starting point was not to start up a bookshop, my dream was to make sure Rwandans accessed books regardless of where they are. I was trying to cover two gaps, the gap of access and the gap of book use. I was viewing a sustainable process. Of all the vocabulary I know, quitting was not among.
Gasana during a bookfair in Casablanca, Morocco, in 2017.
I started with getting tenders in different schools, I would do distributions and sell textbooks, even up to today, our model of business is not based on trade but rather a model based on social business.
How have you been able to make these campaigns?
We have worked with the government, we were blessed to receive an endorsement with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Sports and Culture and this facilitated our entrance to the districts, and provinces to be able to speak about why reading surpasses every other activity.
We get the money that we make in the business and invest it in the campaigns and we have other partners who come board to work together with us.
What has your growth journey been like?
We have grown from stocking 50 titles to 8,000 titles. We moved from buying books solely from the local market to the international market like the UK, USA, France among others. We started as a bookshop for only kids’ books, however, we have expanded to adults’ books. We have opened a publishing house.
I have seen a marvelous growth in terms of finances, from Rwf 50,000 to Rwf 60 Million annual returns.
I started with one employee, now I have nine permanent workers, and part-time designers, editors, writers, printers, and marketers. Those on part-time are over 200.
Out of the 8,000 titles, 100 titles are our very own books on the market, written in Kinyarwanda, French and English. These books are written by children of seven to 14 years. We have even started training children on writing books.
What are you doing to keep up with trends?
We have noticed that people don’t have time to come to the bookshop, so we are in the process of starting a website where anyone can order a book online and it is delivered them wherever they are. This is likely to start operating by the end of November.
How many customers were you getting when you started?
It was hard in the beginning to get someone to just enter the bookshop to ask us about what we were dealing in. A week or even a month would pass without having anyone enter the bookshop. My team would have to go and do marketing. However, right now, people call and order for books. Other people request us to select books for them monthly.
What advice would you give to people who would want to start up business of their own?
The journey of an entrepreneur requires patience, and perseverance. You can’t start today and expect to get profits tomorrow.
Business is not for the faint hearted, because one miscalculation in the business can make it collapse. Being an entrepreneur is a decision that you have to make when you are ready with mental steadiness.
It is important to accept advice but don’t allow diversions. Have a lot of consultations, and get a mentor, someone you throw your frustration to and get counseling. Make sure your mentors are positive and most importantly, read a lot about the business you are doing and the people that are doing the same business.
Has it been a smooth road for you?
Not at all, being a mother, I didn’t have enough time with my children, as sometimes I could travel and spend nights away from home because I had too much to handle. I hadn’t quit my former job and at the same time I was starting a company. This wore me out, it was hard balancing both, until when I quit my old job because I noticed no one was going to run my business like me.
There were many losses in the beginning, I hired staff that didn’t have any idea about books, I even ended up injecting my salary to cover for the debts which I thought I was helping my business yet I was killing it. However, each setback is a lesson.
Are you having any plans of expanding your business in the nearby future?
I am working on being the biggest publishing house in Rwanda, by giving solutions to the challenges of books especially the issue of lack of content. We also want to start a campaign where books can be accessed like other items in the supermarket.