When I visited her, she was packaging mushrooms that she had just harvested from her small backyard garden. Pascaline Uwineza, a resident of Nyamabuye sector, Muhanga District in Southern Province, says the enterprise started as a hobby, but she later realised she could earn a living from growing mushrooms as a business.
The 25-year-old student says the family backyard and some little start-up capital was all she needed to set up the project. Uwineza says mushroom growing is a low-cost investment that brings in big returns.
The third year student at Akilah Institute of Women in Kibagabaga, Gasabo sells most the mushrooms while some are for home consumption.
Uwineza says she was inspired to venture into agribusiness by her entrepreneurship studies at Akilah, adding that it empowered her to find ways of creating employment instead of looking for jobs in other people’s companies.
She says being from a humble background, she was determined to turn around her fortunes and support her family and young siblings who were also in school. Uwineza says she had previously sold snacks to fellow students and teachers during her first and part of second year at college.
She also opened a savings account with a Muhanga-based co-operative called CPF Ineza. She says she used the little proceeds from the snacks business to start up the mushroom project early this year.
“Because I had little capital, I started with 50 tubes of mushroom in April this year. I also used old and unused cradle as a garden. Since this was quite small in terms of production, I could only sell to neighbours initially,” she says.
At the beginning of the project, she used to harvest about 5-10kg, “which was far below the demand from customers.” Uwineza says this presented her a huge challenge, which she capitalised on to expand her enterprise. She says she withdrew Rwf200,000 she had saved with the co-operative to expand the business.
“With this money, I was able to expand the mushroom growing space. This enabled me to plant 500 tubes, up from the previous 50 tubes of mushrooms,” she says.
Uwineza says mushroom tubes can go on producing for up to three months before replanting fresh ones. The young entrepreneur notes that the development was a turning point for the project as it helped her serve all her customers and expand market reach, and reap big returns in the process.
One kilogramme of mushrooms goes for Rwf2,000. Uwineza produces over 40kg per harvest, earning about Rwf80,000.
Uwineza distributes most of her mushrooms to Lamina Supermarket and St Andrew Hotel both in Muhanga satellite city. She also gets orders from Kimironko and Nyarugenge markets in Kigali.
Rwf2 million boost
During the third year, students at Akilah are supposed to come up with fundable business ideas for their final year projects under a programme dubbed as “From idea to action”.
Uwineza says she took advantage of the opportunity to present her oyster mushroom project, thanks to the Akilah Entrepreneurship Fund (AEF). The fund allows finalist students to pitch business ideas at various levels of the entrepreneurship contest. Five top students compete in the finals.
Uwineza says her mushroom project enabled her to make the cut “since I already had what to present during the various levels of the contest”.
“It was an opportunity for me to present my dream business plan that was already underway. The competition, however, helped me to do more research on my idea and develop it further,” she says.
Having made it to the top five, Uwineza says she used her earlier knowledge and experience in mushroom growing, especially on the availability and demand of mushrooms in the country, to convince the judges at the finals and bag the Rwf2 million grand prize.
“I am now planning to expand the enterprise further and open new markets, especially in Kigali and Huye.
From her earnings, Uwineza is able to support her family and siblings. She says she is now able to meet her financial needs at college, thanks to earnings from the mushrooms project.
She has also empowered other youth in her community, teaching them how to grow and market mushrooms. She says after completing college in December, she will focus on the project, particularly value-addition to mushrooms to increase their shelf life. She also plans to start making her own tubes instead of buying other farms, as well as expand the project further to grow more than 2,000 tubes of mushrooms to ensure steady supply.
The success of the project has not come on a silver platter. Uwineza says juggling studies and work has always been a big challenge. She says she is able to sail through due to her determination to prosper despite the odds against her.
“Since I am a boarding student, I work on my farm mostly during weekends. However, when I have no classes during weekdays, I take off time to go and work on the farm. These schedules have made it possible for me to manage the two tasks with ease,” she says.
She says she has not been able to meet demand to supply all her customers’ orders. She however says with the Rwf2 million prize money, she will soon solve the issue. Though demand is still high, the crop’s prices are not always stable, and Uwineza says this and high transportation fees from Muhanga to Kigali are affecting her returns.
The young entrepreneur says to stay ahead of competition, one needs to research regularly about their sector, noting that there are always new trends and ways of doing business.
As an entrepreneur, being ready to take risks and handle challenges is the key to business success, she adds. Seeking advice from the experts is essential, according Uwineza. She advises aspiring entrepreneurs, particularly the young and women, to start with the little money they have and work on expansion later.
“Youth should also aim at job-creation but not to wait for white collar jobs,” she says. She adds that there are many government and NGO programmes that support young entrepreneurs, which Rwanda youth especially graduates can exploit to start up their own business ventures and employ other youth.