Remmy Nsanga is the man behind the popular People Bar and Night Club in Kacyiru. This is arguably the premier night spot in Kigali and it’s easy to know why; much of its reputation derives from the fact that it’s the only discotheque that operates seven days a week.
This was almost unimaginable in Kigali a few years ago. Nsanga returned to Rwanda from Belgium in 1994, just months after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. He first ventured into food business with a pizza place called Cactus. In 2000, he opened a second pizza joint called Havana, in Kacyiru.
“I came back because my mother is Rwandan so I wanted to see and discover the country because before that, it was something I wasn’t even interested in.After 1994, a lot of my friends were coming back so I decided to do the same and see what we could do to rebuild the country. Back then, everything was “to do.” There was no electricity, water, telephone …so deciding to stay in 1994 was a huge decision for me,” he says.
In 2002, he ventured into cinema with the first cinema in Kigali at KBC, complete with a food corner.
When the cinema business didn’t go well, he chose not to quit but instead ventured into a night club business, giving birth to Planet Club, which quickly became the flagship business. Because of its prime location, ample parking and security, it soon became the premier nightspot in Kigali until it was closed for the building’s refurbishment in 2015.
He relocated further down the road and rebranded it to People Bar and Night Club.
“In the beginning, I didn’t have a feeling we were welcome because back then, Police was quite aggressive with the noise pollution law,” he explains.
Today, People Nightclub operates all through the week, something that was unimaginable a few years ago.
Nsanga believes that sheer resilience and adaptability are what nightclub owners need to be a part of, for the city’s changing nightscape.
“My philosophy is I can lose during the week and then recover during the weekend. One day the weekdays will also pick up. It took me a lot of time and dedication to not close the business and leave it open even when there were no clients. Now we’re benefitting from it but it’s a long process, which didn’t come in one week or month. I had to sacrifice a lot of energy and time for people to know that it’s a venue that is open throughout the week. Most new comers give up after a month or two when they see that there are no clients. I’m sure if more and more people develop the same mentality we will have a situation like Kampala, for instance, where every day is a weekend and it’s possible,” he says.
Unlike the former KBC, People Night Club was purpose-built from scratch, with sound proof fittings.
The evolution of Kigali’s night life can be said to have started in 1994, with the opening of the Cadillac Night Club.
The owner, Eugene Habimana (better known as Cobra), set the club up in late 1994 after relocating from Burundi where he had initiated Cadillac in 1989. From 1994 up till November 2012 when the club went up in flames, Cadillac made a name as a regional power house in the night club business, attracting patrons from Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, the DRC and beyond.
Coming on the heels of the Genocide, Cadillac became symbolic of the nation’s healing to many Rwandans recovering from pain and loss. The timing couldn’t have been better.
Yet Cadillac started out humbly, running on a generator in the absence of electricity at the premises.
The burning to ashes of the club is believed to have influenced the subsequent tough regulatory framework by Police and city authorities with regards to the night time economy.
“There was a time around 2012 when there was no interest in doing anything here. The moment you organised a show or concert they would come and shut it down at 10pm when people were just arriving. It was a big challenge,” Nsanga explains.
Several years on, ‘Kigalians’ can now talk of their own night-time economy – a term that describes economic activity that takes place in the evening after people are through with daytime employment (6pm to 6am).
There has been a steady proliferation of hotels, restaurants, cafes, pubs and bars, cinema, music concerts, comedy, even bowling.
Facilities like The Junction in Remera, Papyrus Night Club, Pili Pili, Simba Supermarket and Makuza Plaza represent a new dawn in Kigali’s night life scene, with late night or round-the-clock operating schedules. City suburbs like Remera, Gikondo, Kicukiro, Kimihurura and Nyamirambo have steadily cultivated a reputation for never going to sleep.
“Nightlife is complimentary and important for the city. It’s a source of revenue and it’s the way you keep attracting people as well. People will come in from the region when a big artiste like Stromae is lined up,” Nsanga notes.
“Kigali was a little less lively but this has changed over the recent years, we are really catching up so fast and well with monthly innovation events, parties, themes and annual ones or seasonal ones now being constant and sustainable. The future is bright for this town,” notes Remmy Lubega, director of the Neptunez Band that organises the monthly Kigali Jazz Junction.
“What makes a city lively is the freedom of movement, innovation and investment and liquidity of the township to be able to spend and enjoy or attend events. Some of these factors were not realistic by then and there was less effort to make things happen but over the years everything has been established, we have the most secure, well-lit streets and heavily guarded with personnel.
“Many people have taken interest in establishing entertainment avenues or clubs and creating events. Today one can be spoiled with options, especially on weekends, as opposed to those days when you could only do the same place and hence resort to hold back because there is nothing to look forward to in terms of ambiance, experience and enjoyment,” Lubega says.
Eric Soul, a DJ and events broker, believes Kigali’s nightlife is “now richer and people are more daring.”
Soul returned to Rwanda in 2011, after about 17 years in London and Brussels.
“Coming from London and Brussels I could see the benefit of a night time economy and I could also see the element of fear and the anxiety about the perceived disorderly nature of night life. But I can see as well the benefit of allowing the space to exist. The development of the night economy is a process and I think we’re headed in that direction.”
He believes that more dialogue between the different stakeholders is key in attaining this goal.
“Looking at where we’re coming from, the natural reaction would be a total clampdown rather than moderation. A good case in point is Papyrus Night Club. But then you realise that closing down an investment worth millions of francs leaves many jobs and livelihoods at stake. So the owner had to make some kind of compromise of his original idea of an open space.
Right now, it’s open and security is tight because there is collaboration so it’s all about compromise. We know the kind of overflow effects that night life can bring, but at the same time nightclub owners need to make some money, hence, the need for compromise.”
Nsanga says, “We need a night life in Kigali because not everyone has a nine to five job. If you want to make this country a tourist destination, then people should be able to come here to have fun. The starting point should be Kigali. They have to understand that night life is serious business. They should support people that are doing events outside the regular business hours. It could be shows, theater, dance, music; because these are activities that people engage in after work.”
“There is a way to manage the night economy through dialogue,” Eric Soul adds,“We can leapfrog the process through dialogue and a little bit of trust. Also to leave room for experimentation. Things don’t have to be super formatted. The regulation regime should not alienate the entrepreneur and the people who take the courage to put their time and money and resources into creating such spaces.”
How has Kigali’s night life transformed?
Ariane Ishimwe, Student
Kigali nightlife has transformed for sure.
There are more places to go to for a night out.
Of course this has boosted the country’s economy.
It’s up to us to see that we get positive results from this change.
Cynthia Umurungi, Radio personality
I would say there has been a change but there’s still room for improvement.
More effort should be made to invest in it because there is still a lot missing and a lot we can do.
Jamil Sentamu, Businessman
I once visited Kigali a few years back and it was still on the low, the entertainment was composed.
However, what I have witnessed recently is a great step made.
I think there is a very huge difference.
Olivier Niyonsenga, Mechanic
Well, if you compare it to how it was before then there is a big difference.
People can actually have fun at any time they feel like which wasn’t the case back then.