The Rwanda Cultural Day in San Francisco, US, at the weekend, served more than just a cultural heritage extravaganza.
The event, held on Saturday, convened more than 2,500 Rwandans and friends of Rwanda from across the Diaspora.
For a section of emerging entrepreneurs and Rwanda business community, it served as an opportunity to expand their market beyond the country and the region.
The products and services included locally produced garments and accessories, interior decoration, financial services, ‘Rwanda Mountain Tea,’ the popular ‘Akabanga’ pepper, coffee, cassava floor and Journal, and Rwanda’s first video streaming platform.
Through exhibitions on site stalls, the entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds showcased their products and services with an aim to reach Rwandans in the Diaspora as well as Americans and the rest of the world.
Others used the platform to collect international feedback on their products and services to inform their next business movers.
Kate Bashabe, the proprietor of Kabash House, a firm that specialises in African crafts to produce African themed outfits, accessories and interior decors, told The New Times that her firm had multiple objectives which include meeting clients, building partnership, and collecting feedback.
Local entrepreneurs showcasing their products and services at the event said it was an ideal position to lay the foundation for future sales.
Bashabe said a section of firms in Rwanda can use the opportunity to seek new markets and partnerships.
“Sometimes when you have developed a successful business, your growth is limited by the size of your market. So, being part of Rwanda Cultural Day opens up new possibilities. This is the best chance to make connections and at the same time to meet some new potential partners or buyers. It is also an opportunity to stretch your mind, gain essential skills and knowledge in the work place,” she said.
Citing the current trade deficit as a result of low exports and high imports, Bashabe said such efforts in partnership with the Government can increase exports.
“Rwanda’s participation in global trade or even regional trade is still low. As a rapidly growing economy, Rwanda imports more than it exports leading to a growing trade deficit. Rwanda Development Board needs to work hard to raise the level of domestic trade and increase regional and international exports in order to improve Rwanda’s trade position,” Bashabe said.
RDB conducts pro-active export promotion activities in targeted markets and export development programme aiming at marketing Rwandan products in international markets, while coaching exporters on marketing strategies.
With a section of business people wary of the costs related to traveling and exhibiting at such events, the exhibitors say that, in the long run, it is a worthwhile customer acquisition cost.
“There are different opinions from such exhibitions and trade shows. Exhibitions can be a valuable way of meeting many key prospects in a short duration and lay foundation for growth in contacts and eventual sales,” said Bashabe.
“You might spend more than you will actually earn, but the experience is of greater value because even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way we think. A mind that has been stretched by a new experience cannot go back to its old dimensions.”
Already, some exhibitors and business people say that Rwandan made products can feature well in the foreign markets and are globally competitive.
For instance, Sonia Mugabo, a Rwanda designer who runs a fashion brand under the same name (Sonia Mugabo), featured at Coterie, one of the biggest trade shows in New York – prior to Rwanda Cultural Day – and found her products appealing.
“Many Japanese consumers showed interest in my products, which confirms that my brand is attractive to buyers out there. My clients are particularly fond of my choice in prints, colour and design aesthetics,” Mugabo said.
“My Made-in-Rwanda brand can compete on an international level. It is an exciting time for us.”
Mugabo said, going forward, her firm hopes to expand the market beyond the country as well as serve a previously unserved market, Rwandans in the Diaspora.
“It is a perfect opportunity to expand our market beyond Rwanda and the region since we are also reaching out to the Rwandan Diaspora who can’t otherwise access our products. It is also an opportunity to showcase our capability to make great, quality products - which can also compete at the international level,” said Mugabo.
To get to her current level, Mugabo commends the Government for providing tax cuts for designers importing fabrics and other raw materials.
However, she said emerging entrepreneurs could use more support especially in financial access which has been a persistent challenge for emerging businesses.
“What I would ask is, maybe, helping young entrepreneurs access financial support. For example, encouraging banks to reduce interest rates or setting up grants programmes for designers to be able to put in place the right manufacturing facilities, such as well-equipped tailoring workshops, training in technical skills to help different brands grow, and the textile industry to advance faster,” she said.
“There are many talented designers who give up because they are unable to grow since they don’t have enough capital to sustain their brands.”