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, Peterson Tumwebaze brings you Mary Gasana, who had to work as a shop attendant to raise capital for her dream business.
The managing director of JEM Freight Forwarding and Clearing, a clearing firm with branches at all borders across the country and at the airport, has no regrets perpetual optimism is a business force multiplier, goes an old saying. This adage could have been coined for Mary Gasana, who has built a fortune in the clearing and forwarding industry, which many call a preserve of men.
The resident of Remera in Gasabo District and the managing director of JEM Freight Forwarding and Clearing on Airport Road, started from humble beginnings.
“I wanted to employ myself after school; that’s how I mooted the idea of joining the clearing and forwarding business, but this required some experience and capital. So, when I completed studies at Kigali School of Business and Finance in 2003, I thought it was best to first work in my uncle’s shop,” Gasana narrates.
She says the process required a lot of discipline and willingness to learn from successful people.
“Besides, as a young woman I knew I had to build a strong base and also define my future at an early age despite the challenges,” she adds.
While working at the shop, Gasana says she created a pool of key contacts through networking with businesspeople.
“This paid off when I landed a better job at Kigali International Airport in the cargo and product handling department in 2005. The move introduced me to a new world and boosted my morale to start my own business.
“It was like another class, where I would learn what the cargo clearing and forwarding process entailed. This would later prove critical when I was going to start my own clearing firm,” she explains.
Gasana says what she earned as a shop attendant was not enough to kick start her dream business, so she approached her elder sister for financial support.
“Luckily, she had trust in my ability and gave me money to kick-start the business. Of course the beginning was not easy, given the fact that I didn’t have enough experience in this kind of business,” says Gasana.
Gasana believed in the impossible and soldiered on. “I believed that if other people can do it, I too could do it. This was the major motivating factor at the beginning despite the huge challenges,” she notes.
“I was well aware that with time I would, through learning on the job be able to perfect my act.”
She says she chose to locate the business near the airport because “I needed to be strategic to attract customers if I was to survive in the industry”.
Gasana has had to struggle finding enough capital required to keep the business afloat.
“You need a lot of money because clients cannot entrust you with their cargo if they know that you are not financially strong. Should anything go wrong, you can compensate them either through insurance or directly from your coffers. This requires a lot of money,” she points out.
The fact that clearing agents are expected to re-locate and move to Mombasa keeps Gasana on her toes all the time.
With the implementation of the single customs territory, clearing and forwarding agents are supposed to shift to the seaport, where most operations will be done. She says the move will hurt many businesses.
She says the sector is also struggling under a heavy burden of taxes, “making it almost impossible for one to make ‘reasonable’ profits”.
Gasana advises those who want to engage in business not to wait until that time when they think they have acquired enough experience to pursue their passion.
“You don’t need to have done it before for you to succeed. All you need is to start and be ready to learn along the way.
“After all, learning is a life-long process and the more you learn, the more experience you gain,” the clearing guru counsels.
Gasana urges women in the clearing industry to always ensure they verify cargo as part of the measures to avoid risks or having to compensate clients needlessly.
“You have got to verify client’s goods before signing any documents, otherwise you risk paying for lost items unnecessarily,” she notes.
She says women must also believe in themselves and come out strongly and shine “because now is the time for women to drive the country’s economic growth”.
“For fellow clearing agents, company mergers will reduce operational costs and make the Rwanda clearing and forwarding industry more profitable, sustainable and competitive,” she says.
Gasana says from a small firm, she has been able to expand the business, with JEM now having offices at the Kigali International Airport, Gikondo Magerwa and all border posts across the country.
Giving back to community
“Blessed is the hand that gives for it’s the hand that receives,” they say. Gasana used some of her profits to establish an orphanage called Women and Youth foundation, which helps needy women and children. The foundation is so far taking care of seven children and over 10 widows.
“I was inspired by my father’s love to start the foundation to help orphans and street children when I was still young. I believe that it’s our responsibility as Rwandans to help each other,” she says.
I am trying to reposition my business within the East African integration process because the future of any clearing agent lies on how the process plays out.