Like any other graduate, her expectations were high after many years of studies. She was looking forward to a well paying job that comes with several perks. Justine Ufitikirezi was 30 years old when she graduated with a Diploma in Information Technology. However, she was soon to realize that the reality out of school is a sharp contrast of what she expected.
From the dream of a well paying job, she settled for a front office desk job at former Kigali Institute of Education (KIE), now School of Education, University of Rwanda.
Despite taking on the job she never thought of doing as a graduate, she did it diligently for one year and in her own words, it was a stepping stone to better things. “It taught me customer care skills that are instrumental in business,” recalls Ufitikirezi.
With exceptional customer skills acquired, she was able to venture into marketing before going into private business as a specialist in furniture making- a male dominated business where she has found her niche.
When I visited her workshop in Kicukiro, a Kigali suburb, I could see the sense of urgency at the busy furniture workshop.
Everything is done with a sense of urgency as if to beat tight deadlines. When I asked one of the workers, I was told that, Ufitikirezi is strict on meeting delivery deadlines. “If a customer makes an order, the promised time of delivery has to be respected. There is no room for excuses and delays,” the worker says as she puts final touches on a 6 by 6 mahogany bed to be delivered within 24 hours.
Inside the workshop, classy and unique sofa sets prominently stand out. She personally tailors the unique cushions and chair covers. Other items at the workshop include side boards, beds, and a demonstration area for interior design. She also offers interior design services.
Outside the busy workshop, workers load furniture on a pickup truck to deliver to one of the clients in Remera.
From a receptionist, Ufitikirezi is now a proud owner of Nkomeje Wood Manufacturing Ltd and earns Rwf1.5 million every month on average. Also, over 12 people earn a living from her business as employees.
After graduation with a diploma in information technology, Ufitikirezi got a job as a receptionist, a role she performed for one year.
“I was later transferred to the marketing department where I worked for a few months before throwing in the towel to start my own business,” she says.
Later, she contacted a friend who had a tailoring and carpentry business in 2013. She wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps as an expert in tailoring and furniture making.
“After getting some skills, I contacted my mother who was already in furniture business to take me on as an intern,” she adds. The Rwanda Tourism University College (RTUC) graduate says she also enrolled for a short course to hone her skills in tailoring, carpentry and business management as she prepared to start her own enterprise.
She worked for a number of firms, including her mother’s furniture business, to raise startup capital.
“The money I saved was not enough, but I was determined to start my own project,” she says, noting that she started with second hand furniture that she would repair and sell.
Ufitikirezi says the decision to venture into furniture business was largely informed by demand from Rwanda’s growing middle-class that “wants to live a decent life.”
Ufitikirezi wanted to set up a fully-equipped workshop and make classy furniture, but did not have enough money.
“I approached banks for a loan without success. I even went to COPEDU Microfinance, where I held an account, but they asked for collateral,” she explains.
Business Development Fund (BDF) intervenes
It seems luck was trailing the young business woman. When Business Development Fund (BDF) learnt of her ordeal, the Fund deployed its officers to inspect the project and evaluate its viability. Following the inspection, BDF agreed to guarantee her loan of Rwf 2.3 million from COPEDU to finance the project.
The move, she says, played a crucial role and helped her take the business to the next level besides laying the foundation for the current success. It was a turning point in her life.
“It is important to note that BDF is giving people hope and a sense of optimism to fully exploit their potential and help drive Rwanda’s development agenda,” she notes.
The mother of two adds that the fund has done a lot in promoting entrepreneurship and creating jobs across the country.
Despite the progress, Ufitikirezi still faces a number of challenges in her furniture business. The high cost of raw materials, like timber, is making it hard for the business particularly as it pushes up the prices of her products making them un-affordable.
Ufitikirezi adds that the country still imports a lot of furniture, yet it can be sourced locally. She notes that cheap imported furniture, which is flooding the market is creating unfair competition.
She is, however, optimistic that the Made-in-Rwanda initiative could help boost local producers, enabling entrepreneurs like her to flourish.
She says high taxes levied on small businesses are another major constraint for her and “a reason why many start-ups are collapsing.”
Despite the challenges, her determination and resilience have paid off as the former receptionist who used to earn Rwf80,000 in 2012, now bags Rwf1.5 million per month as profit. With hard work and support from BDF, she has managed to thrive as a young entrepreneur in a male dominated industry.
Ufitikirezi has managed to build a permanent house; she has a vehicle and, above all takes care of her family with ease.
The young entrepreneur employs 12 people at her furniture workshop and plans to establish more furniture workshops across the country. Quality is her priority as she plans to invest more in the business to enhance quality furniture that can be competitive in markets beyond Rwandan borders.
Ufitikirezi’s advice to the youth is to “never give up” as they chase their dreams. She also adds that businesses should take advantage of the conducive environment government has created and build strong enterprises and create jobs for others.
“Take the risk and believe you can do it,” she says.
She also appeals to financial institutions to find means of reducing high interest rates. Banks charge an average of 17 per cent interest rate per annum.
What other people say about Ufitikirezi
Ufitikirezi is young, but handles business in a professional manner, says Adeline Uwizeyimana, a neighbour in Kicukiro.
She is a hard working person and does not like to waste time, according to Jean Bosco Niringiyimana.