Back in the mid 1990s, Kigali was littered with kiosks written on: Amata na Fanta Bikonje (cold milk and soda). If you ever wondered what happened to them, the answer is: Nothing at all.
The writings may be no more, but the business is everywhere and booming more than ever before.
With the city’s grand plan to beautify the streets, the many wooden and metallic roadside kiosks were demolished. Instead, they gave birth to half shops and half tea rooms which one may call milk bars.
It is common these days to spot a parent with a child or two going out to these now popular hangouts. In there all your needs for soft drinks will be catered for; sodas, water, processed juice, cold milk, tea and ikivuguto. They are served with every snack available in this country; Chapatti, samosas, cakes, bread, amandazi, eggrolls, bananas to mention but a few.
Nyiramasengesho Khadija runs a milk bar in Kimironko. The signpost on the entrance to her business premise reads: Amata Meza yi’Nyanza. She is from Nyanza herself, but not the milk. “I buy the milk from around and make the ikivuguto myself,” she says. People know the best milk is from Nyanza. I’m from there so I use the advantage to market my business,” she confesses.
It’s around 11.00am and the place is filled to the brim. The room has a sitting capacity of about 15 people and some are standing, using the counter as their table. About a quarter of them are dressed in Islamic attires. “Most of my customers are teetotalers, especially Muslims and born-again Christians.” She quickly adds thatRwandans are generally synonymous with milk. “I know a few of my customers who take alcohol as well.”
Proprietors like Nyiramasengesho say that milk bars have increased because it’s a small and manageable business. “My initial idea was to run a restaurant. I realized that it’s hectic and will require me to employ at least four more people yet my capital was meager. I run this place with only one helper.” She further points out that whenever people go out, they mainly like to have a drink than eat. “And as you may know, milk is a drink that acts as food as well. So it’s a two-way thing,” she explains.
Her explanation resonates with what Mukeshimana Prosper says. He explains that as a bachelor and a teetotaler, there is no better place to go than a milk bar. “One, they are financially friendly; you can’t even spend Rwf1,000.
Two, I rarely cook at home so what better light meal is better than a glass of ikivuguto? I mean, I eat food in form of a drink!”
In the city center slightly opposite City Plaza, there is a famous hideout in form a milk bar. At any given time of the day, there is never enough space for everyone.One of the waitresses called Ange is acting as an usher.
Using the matatu word, mwegerane, she has successfully failed to make sure that everyone gets a seat. Is it because it is lunchtime? “No,” replies the gentleman next to me. He is dressed in a cream shirt, navy blue suit and a blue and white stripped necktie. “This place is ever congested. I promise myself to never come back to this confusion but I always find myself here,” he says. Asked if he works nearby, he says he does. “I work with Ecobank.”
It is a hot day and the people crammed inside aren’t helping the situation. Just like a beehive, there is a lot of humming around.The long tables are filled with plastic plates containing snacks and glasses of milk-- both inshyushyu and ikivuguto.
Besides the usual snacks, accompaniments for the milk here include boiled cassava and dip fried sweet potatoes. People have to keep tapping on each other to get their way to or from their seats.
A few drops of sweat are forming on the bankers face and he loosens his necktie. So why does he keep coming here? “There are days when you don’t feel like eating anything yet you have to take something at lunch. I find milk and a piece of cassava ideal on such occasions,” he reveals. It is a perfect lunch.
Market and employment
At one place around Rujugiro Estates in Gikondo, one such milk bar has Dstv and is rendezvous for many teetotalers, who enjoy the English Premier League.
The proprietor, one Murenzi, says that he started the business after sharing his dissatisfaction with some friends. “If you want to enjoy a football game outside your home, the only option you have is a bar,” he says. “Some of us are perturbed by the smell of alcohol, so where should we go?”
He adds that he can’t compete with bars. “How much milk do you think one takes in 90 minutes? Two cups if it is tea and one glass if it is only milk. ”That sounds like business is not doing well, right? “It is not, but I can afford a few basics. “Plus my dream is keep it running and even get a better place in City Center.”
He so far employs three people and has provided a ready market for his suppliers in Mutara. “My relatives supply the milk and I pay them weekly,” Murenzi says.
Carolyn Mutesi is a nutritionist. She is aware of the mushrooming milk joints, but is unconvinced that they are contributing to the war against malnutrition. “When we talk of malnutrition, we mainly refer to babies and infants.
You rarely find them in these places,” she says.
Milk is a perishable commodity and everyone tries their best to sell it as fast as they can. “Even if it is refrigerated, it loses its taste after a while,” narrates Nyiramasengesho. “And once word goes around that your milk is stale, you’re finished. I’ve seen people close businesses in such a way.”
For Murenzi, the biggest challenge is transportation. “Mutara is far but I trust the quality of milk that I get from there.” Anything he’d want the government to help with? “Scrap taxes on such businesses and let milk flow all over if the battle against malnutrition is to be won.”
He adds that that’s why most milk bars are often disguised as boutiques or restaurants. “You can’t make any money unless they have something else to support them.”
None of these two entrepreneurs mentions the milk dispensers operated by Inyange as a threat or challenge.
“Those are milk collection dairies, not eateries like ours” explains Nyiramasengesho. “You can’t ask for a drink and a snack in there, can you?”
Murenzi says competition is healthy for business. “It’s quality and service that matters at the end of it all. Whoever adheres to these will emerge the winner.”
Winner or no winner, the future of the milk bars in Rwanda seems prosperous so far. Many more are likely to come up in the near future with more glamour and pomp. So next time you hear people cheering a game in your neighbourhood, don’t be surprised to find that people have really gotten high in a milk bar.