Kigali at night: Ten years later, is 24/7 business culture picking up?

A street in Central Business District. Timothy  Kisambira.
A street in Central Business District. Timothy Kisambira.

Ten years ago, the City of Kigali launched 24-hour business campaign to boost the city’s night-time economy. The idea was to have a city that never sleeps, an-ever bustling metropolis that offers opportunities and memorable experience to its inhabitants and visitors anytime of the day.

So, how’s the situation today?

It’s 11p.m on a weekday when Saturday Times reporter hits the road on a mission to check whether local businesses have embraced the 24-hour business mentality.

One obvious observation is that there is no traffic jam, even at places like Kisementi that’s known for heavy traffic snarl-up during peak hours. A few motorists are however still on the road.

At the Gishushu junction, there are no traffic police but most motorists respect the traffic lights nonetheless.

They also appear to be speeding than is usually the case.

Noticeably, there are no public buses.

Taxi-motos turn up from all directions, many carrying passengers – underlining the fact it is the most common form of transport in town at night.

Its midnight and I am headed for Nyarugunga, a city suburb in Kicukiro District.

Only two shops are open along the Giporoso-Kanombe/Nyarugunga stretch. One is a mini-supermarket and another a small shop selling a diverse range of products, including cheap beers and snacks.

Jean Bosco Nizeyimana, who this newspaper found in a family shop in Ninko Village in Kamashashi Cell, Nyarugunga Sector, says he alternates with his father to keep their shop open 24/7.

“We replace each other. My dad starts at 5a.m and I take over at 5p.m. We started this arrangement four years ago and now we get clients at night because everyone around knows that we never close,” he tells The New Times.

“Its four years down the road and we’ve never regretted,” he says. “We get more profit today as a result of operating the shop 24 hours a day, compared to when we used to work during daytime only,” says Nizeyimana, whose family shop is located by the road near the only petrol station in the area.

Augustin Mutabazi, who operates Red Apple supermarket in Nyarugunga, says they normally close at around midnight because clients are very few around that time.

Previously tranquil neighbourhoods

“We prolong until 12a.m but practically we’ve no clients past 11p.m,” he says.

“We have security but people are generally still averse to carry on with their business at night, that means that with no clients you close and go home,” he adds.

Clement Baremera, the owner of a small shop at Giporoso right after the traffic lights on the road heading to Kabeza, who sells snacks, soft drinks, among other products, said that when he started out eight years ago he worked 24 hours.

“Initially I was doing well, I would sell about 30 loaves of bread in one night…but later I noticed that I was no longer receiving as many clients and no one at all past certain hours, so I decided that I will be closing at 2a.m.”

“Today, I am not even able to sell 10 loaves of bread,” says Baremera, but adds that he has no idea what’s behind that.

Over the years, new business centres have emerged in previously tranquil neighbourhoods.

Such places include Kisementi, which is now teeming with bars, clubs, fast food joints, mini-supermarkets, restaurants and lodges. In one specific area between the Kisementi-Kimironko road and Kisementi-Giporoso road, many residential homes have been replaced by these sorts of businesses. Here, revelers can be seen drinking and dancing the night away. In a number of bars, karaoke and pool tables are among key attractions during the night.

Ndoli Supermarket is one of the businesses that operate 24/7 at Kisementi. Gloria Kayirebwa, an employee at Ndoli Supermarket-Kisementi, was working overnight when we visited the place. She had come in at 7p.m and would leave at 7a.m. “We get clients at night, sometimes more than we do during daytime,” she says.

“I think people are gradually embracing business-at-night mindset.”

The recently opened Junction nightclub and restaurant in the same building as the supermarket have attracted more traffic in the area at night.

The Gishushu neighbourhood is another area that has changed over time, thanks establishments like Simba Supermarket that opened an outlet opposite the Parliament Building. This shopping mall operates 24/7, unlike its sister store in downtown Kigali that closes at midnight.

A cashier at Simba Supermarket at Centenary House during an evening shift. Sam Ngendahimana. 

When The New Times arrived at the Gishushu-Kimihurura outlet at around 2am, customers were placing orders for food, while others enjoyed drinks in the compound.

“One day I hosted a house party with my friends and we finished our drinks at around2a.m. I got in the car and started driving around looking for drinks in vain. Its until someone advised me to come here – and that was coming to 3p.m – that I found beer,” Robert Muhire, one of the patrons we found at the mall.”

Daniel Mucyo, a waiter at the outlet, said they are used to working at night, adding that they work in three shifts.

“We have three shifts a day,” he said. “The first shift starts at 7a.m until 3p.m. The second runs through 10p.m, and the third starts until 7am.”

Mucyo said that in the wee hours of the night, food and drinks are the most consumed products.

A businesswoman waits for clients in a handcraft shop in Kigali on Thursday night. Sam Ngendahimana. 

Central Business District

However, the situation is different in the Central Business District. Here, almost all the businesses, including some major stores, close at night. Nightlife here pales in comparison to places like Kisementi, Gishushu and Nyamirambo, which enjoys a longstanding reputation as Kigali’s never-sleeping suburb.

The roads in CBD are basically deserted at night. Popular shopping malls like Simba Supermarket at Centenary House, Nakumatt Supermarket at KCT, as well as T2000 all close late evening.

In downtown Kigali, the Nakumatt Supermarket outlet at UTC complex is the only major shopping mall that operates 24/7.

“I started my shift at 8pm and will go home 9am,” Jean Damascene Niyongira, an attendant at the store tells this reporter at around 2.30a.m.

He says clients are significantly fewer at night than during daytime.

In terms of nighttime business, we tend to receive more people on the weekend, particularly Friday and Saturday, he says.

One restaurant adjacent to Nakumatt-UTC also operates throughout the night.

But, that’s almost it in CBD.

Nakumatt shopping mall at UTC in downtown Kigali. Timothy  Kisambira.

Night-time public transport

A Kigali resident who The New Times spoke to summed it up: “You have to leave town as night falls, otherwise you may have to walk home – unless you are of course driving”.

He said it’s hard for one to get a bus past 10a.m.

Bishop Kihangire, the director of transport at Rwanda Federation of Transports cooperatives (RFTC), one of the three companies authorised to operate city public transport, says they are required to operate from 5a.m through 11p.m under the contract they signed with the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA).

He said, while they were in position to provide public buses to work past 11p.m, they would incur losses because there are practically no passengers.

Even the buses that take people from the city centre from around 10a.m to the suburbs often return empty, he says. “At that time, almost all businesses are closed and most people already at home. We can easily increase our working hours, but who will use our services?”

He adds, “If most businesses in town were working at night and there were people to take from one point to another, we would certainly exploit that opportunity. At the moment, that’s not the case.”

“A continuous campaign is needed to change the mindset of business operators and the general public. Kigali is one of the safest cities in the world and we should be taking advantage of that,” Kihangire observes.

But Albert Kagenzi, a taxi-moto rider, says Kigali’s nightlife is increasingly becoming a major source of livelihood for him and other commercial motorcyclists.

Most of our passengers are people coming from having good time in bars, he says.

Chapatti, special omelette

At night, he says, taxi-motos have no competition for passengers apart from cabs, which are more expensive and therefore unaffordable for many people.

In Nyamirambo, some businesses tend to thrive at night. “Do you want a chapatti? We also make a special omelette and tea,” Caled Mbarushimina, said as he approached our car, at almost 3a.m. Here, in the Rwezamenyo area of Nyamirambo, small-scale businesses dealing in fast food, such as Mbarushimana’s, are a commonplace.

“Here we don’t sleep,” he tells us. “We work in shifts. I started working at 3p.m and will go home at 6a.m, when my colleague will take over until I return at 3p.m.”

He said most of their clients are taxi-men (cab drivers) and taximoto riders.

Asked about the unique challenges of working at night, he said their business is affected when their stock runs out and yet they can’t find a place to buy new ingredients. “As you can see, shops are closed. So when you run out of flour, oil, etc, you just close and go home,” said Mbarushimana.

He implored other businesses to start working at night as this will gradually attract clients. “When people continuously see that you are working at night they will come and buy for you.”

“I am told that in neighbouring countries, people work 24 hours a day. Authorities should double their efforts of promoting nighttime business operations in Rwanda as well especially because country is safe,” said Mbarushimana.

Elie Ahishakiye, an employee at Wad Eoit Africa, a betting company operating in Nyamirambo, said most of their clients nowadays come at night.

“When we started out, clients were very few but with time they started increasing including during the night,” he said

There were more than 10 clients at Wad Eoit Africa when we arrived.

More nightclubs

Like almost everything else in Rwanda, Kigali’s nightlife has significantly evolved in recent years.

“10 years ago, there were only three nightclubs in the whole of Kigali, but today there’s a club almost in every corner of town,” says Lambert Uwimana, a patron at Junction nightclub. “Previously, clubs would open only on weekend forgetting that entertainment should be an everyday thing; however, things have since changed, some clubs now operate all days”.

At 1p.m on Tuesday, Junction Club was half-full, with revelers dancing to loud music blaring from huge speakers.

Zayana Gasengayire, a waitress at the club, says they receive more clients during the weekend.

“During weekdays, we receive between 30 and 50 clients but in weekend, at least 150 customers enter our club in a one night,” she said.

Charles Bizimana, from Agence Club and Deep Club (for VIPs), located next to AIMS campus on Rwandex-Remera road, said having clientele at night has never been a problem for them.

He said on any weekday they receive at least 150 customers at night.

‘It has to make business sense’

The entertainment spot is located in one of Kigali’s red light districts.

Previously, pharmacies would work at night only when they were the ones officially on duty.

However, today, a few pharmacies in Kigali work 24/7.

Vine Pharmacy is one of them.

Jean Claude Habimana, an attendant at Vine Pharmacy-Kisementi, said it’s been a while since they started operating at night, adding that only business owners can make sure that the culture of working overnight takes root.

“You can’t impose it,” he said. “It really boils down to how pragmatic the owners and employers are.”

Edmond Tumwine, the acting director of advocacy and communication at Private Sector Federation (PSF), said there is need for business operators to increase their operational hours if they are to become competitive.

He, however, cited low consumption rate during the night as the main reason behind most businesses’ failure to adopt 24/7 operations. “It has to make business sense.”

Bruno Rangira, the City of Kigali communication specialist, said a lot has been achieved since the city authorities launched the 24/7 campaign in 2017.

“Public lights, security and public transport have all significantly improved and they facilitate nighttime business,” said Rangira.

He said the campaign already bore fruit as some businesses now operate 24 hours a day.

“Previously, shops would close at 6p.m but now many prolong until 12a.m. We believe we will see further improvement as demand grows for nighttime services,” Rangira said.

At one point, shopkeepers would shut doors in the face of customers so they can go for their lunch breaks.

“The City of Kigali will continue to create the necessary conditions and environment for business operators to work during both daytime and nighttime,” Rangira said.