Driven to the wall be circumstances beyond her control, she dropped out of college to try her hand in business. Determination to succeed, hard work and the go-getter spirit have combined to help cut her teeth in the dynamic export business.
Donatille Nibagwire is now running a thriving enterprise, FLORIS, a horticulture export firm based in Kiyovu, a Kigali suburb. Over the past decade or so, Nibagwire has been able to cultivate markets across the globe, particularly in the Middle East, Europe, and across the African continent. With a network of over 2,000 horticulture farmers across the country, Nibagwire is able to serve her clients with Rwandan horticulture produce, including avocados, bananas, flowers, and red and green paper.
However, her journey in the world of business was circumstantial, and it has not been a bed of roses.
Nonetheless, her determination to succeed in a male dominated sector no matter what, has inspired many, especially women, who look up to her as a role model and seek her for and advice.
How she started
Nibagwire had set out to become a lawyer, but fate had other plans and she ended up as vegetable and flower vendor, albeit on the international stage. Her decision to join business was triggered by the sad history of Rwanda that forced children to become ‘adults’ overnight to fend for themselves, particularly in the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
She says the killing of her parents and siblings during 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi shook and traumatised her, leaving her as the only survivor in her family. With no one to provide for her, she was forced to look for work to raise money to cater for her basic needs and school fees.
She says she threw in the towel a few years later and used her savings of about Rwf300,000 to start up a small horticulture business and pay college fees.
Besides, she says, she never had enough money to continue with school.
“So, I had to suspend studies to concentrate on my business as it was new to me and highly demanding,” says the mother of four.
The entrepreneur was then (2004) a third year law student at Kigali Independent University (ULK).
Nibagwire says she faced a lot of hardships starting out, but persevered. This has seen her build a multimillion export enterprise, selling the Made-in-Rwanda brand across the globe.
Joining export trade
Nibagwire says she first worked for a few established companies to understand the business and sharpen her skills before setting up her own enterprise.
She also worked with farmers at the grassroots, which gave her an opportunity to buy and supply produce to export companies.
“This helped me to understand farmers’ needs and what was required to venture into the horticulture export business,” she says.
She says the experience helped her to understand the market well, enabling her to respond to market trends from a point of knowledge.
Nibagwire says, during her initial years, she was able to secure funds from Rwanda Development Bank (BRD) to invest and expand her business.
“It was actually BRD that approached me after learning about my business, offering to support me,” she says. With the loan, she says, she was able to expand her network of farmers and try out new markets.
Nibagwire says limited market information and access to finance are some of the big challenges threatening export trade. Rwanda being a land locked country, Nibagwire says, exporters from Rwanda including herself often find it difficult to connect to global markets.
“Connectivity is huge challenge to local exporters. This, coupled with high flight costs, affect the profitability of the industry. However, with RwandAir opening new destinations across the continent and beyond, I hope that will help open up new business opportunities for exporters,” she says.
Nibagwire also says that the issue of packaging materials and access to cold chain storage facilities needs urgent attention.
She says her business has since grown from Rwf300,000 to a multimillion export enterprise. The export firm, which exports horticulture produce to Europe, Middle East, and Africa, earns more than Rwf50 million per annum. She works with over 2,000 farmers presently compared to seven employers when she had just started out.
She also works with different farmers’ associations representing almost 30,000 members.
She is grateful to the government and the good leadership of President Paul Kagame, saying it has brought about peace and stability, which are the key factors for businesses to thrive.
Nibagwire says export business requires continuous investments to ensure all the enabling infrastructure is in place.
“We need to invest in farmers, storage facilities, and new technologies to keep on top of our game,” she notes.
She advises farmers, and exporters to take advantage of the Export Growth Fund to boost their capacity to ensure volume and quality exports.
According to Nibagwire, Rwandans must ‘farm for the market’.
“It is important that we understand market trends and requirements, and advise farmers accordingly so they produce for targeted market and gain more their efforts.”
She advise borrowers to always have all the documents required by banks readily available, saying it’s not true that the procedures to secure loans are stringent.
Nibagwire says she will continue to look for more and better export markets and plans to leverage the facilities in place to drive up the sector exports.
She looks to participate in campaigns on enhancing quality and quantity across sectors. She is also planning to go back to school soon and finish her studies.
Nibagwire says export business requires patience, trust, and consistency to ensure regular, predictable, and sustainable supply to clients. This will sometimes require you to work and night to meet deadlines and build client trust, she says, adding; “These, and being efficient in what you do, determine the success or failure of an enterprise.”
One should constantly gauge customer satisfaction, and endeavour to meet all their different needs and tastes.
“Asking clients whether they were satisfied with your service or what they think about your business will give you priceless feedback that helps you improve where necessary. This will, in the long-run, drive your sales and grow your enterprise,” she notes.
She believes exporters must work together, and establish strategic partnerships to grow the sector.