The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi ‘pushed’ Berthe Umurerwa into a dark, bottomless pit from where she never thought she would come out alive. The sole survivor in a family of eight children, Umurerwa was 11 years old at the time of the Genocide in which her parents also died.
Born in Nyarusange sector (formerly Mugina sector), Kamonyi District in Southern Province, Umurerwa was raised by her grandfather, with over 15 other children orphaned by the Genocide. She was the eldest.
“I was devastated after losing my parents and siblings. I never thought I would ever live a normal life,” she narrates. However, being the eldest child among the orphans under her grandfather’s care, Umurerwa was forced by circumstances to somehow ‘pull herself together’ against all odds and contribute to wellbeing of the family.
“I had to find ways to fend for the family and ensure a better future for us,” she says.
That was to mark the beginning of her journey into entrepreneurship.
Umurerwa’s school life
Umurerwa says for a long time, the family depended on handouts from the government and well-wishers.
After she completed secondary school in 2004, she was lucky and got a job at Centre de Santé in Nyanza District as a nutritionist. Umurerwa, who was financed by FARG, a government fund that supports Genocide survivors, specialised in social studies at A’level.
In 2008, she quit the job to start an enterprise that would help her to raise enough money to pay for university studies, and cater for the orphans under her grandfather’s care.
“Although I had a job, I felt that a secondary school certificate would not help me to achieve my goals in life. Besides, I could lose it to a better-qualified person if I didn’t upgrade,” she says.
Starting a business
Umurerwa says that by the time she left the job, she had saved Rwf200,000, which she used to engage in different types of businesses five years ago.
“My first business was selling cassava flour in our locality and later, I opened up a store dealing in foodstuff,” she points out.
She adds that she kept studying the community needs and eventually set up a hardware shop in the area; “which fulfilled my ambition of one day owning a worthy business that would help improve my standard of living and ensure sustainable flow of income”. Umurerwa says she earns up to Rwf800,000 per month, depending on the season.
She says her decision to zero on the hardware dealership was inspired by the fact that in rural areas many people need construction materials, but often have to travel long distances to access them. In her case, people from Nyarusange sector used to get them from Kamonyi town, which is several kilometres away, she notes. With income from her business, Umurerwa supports Genocide orphans with school fees and offers basic daily needs.
Though her earnings are not that much, she is able to pay school fees to a number of Genocide survivors as well as cater for other basic needs. This is besides paying her university tuition fees.
“It is a great honour to look after other orphans, one of whom is handicapped,’ says Umurerwa, a first year tourism undergraduate.
“My husband has also been supportive. We are working together to ensure better lives of all the children under our care,” she says.
Her philosophy of life
Umurerwa believes a secret to a better life is through working hard, trying out different ventures and seizing any opportunity that comes your way.
She says one can always succeed in whatever they are doing if they develop a ‘never give up’ attitude, arguing that “good things come to those who persevere”.
She reasons that even if someone is to offer support, they would likely help those who work hard.
“First, financiers will first look at what you have before they can support you. Besides, God helps those who help themselves,” she says.
Umurerwa believes that it is a sin not to work.
Umurerwa says running a hardware business in rural areas is sort of a seasonal venture unlike other businesses, saying she gets most clients after farmers have harvested crops. She says this means that during the ‘off’ season, she receives few customers, which affects her profitability.
Umurerwa who at the beginning tried out various ventures, notes the business world is like a real jungle for women. She points out that most women in business don’t understand their markets, making it hard for them to thrive.
Umurerwa advises women to work hard to succeed in business. She also urges women, especially Genocide survivors never to give up on their dreams and to become self-reliant.
The Business Times annual entrepreneurship series, “Women in Business” is back, and will run for the next two or so months. The series profile women who have defied the odds to thrive in business across all the sectors of the economy, and in research. The project aims to inspire young girls and other women to pursue and live their dreams.
Today, Seraphine Habimana brings you Berthe Umurerwa, who rose from the ashes of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi to become a respected businesswoman in Kamonyi District despite the tragedy in which her seven siblings and parents died.