A day at Kigali Artists Village

When you visit Kigali’s ‘home’ of handcrafts, one thing that strikes you most is that the business community is changing and the need to improve customer service in Rwanda is being embraced.
A customer looks at Rwandan art crafts. The Sunday Times / John Mbanda.
A customer looks at Rwandan art crafts. The Sunday Times / John Mbanda.

When you visit Kigali’s ‘home’ of handcrafts, one thing that strikes you most is that the business community is changing and the need to improve customer service in Rwanda is being embraced.

At Kaplaki Artiste Cooperative centre located in Rugunga, Kiyovu, you are welcomed by smiling faces. They rush to you and tell you prices for their art pieces. If it is your first time, however, it becomes hard to distinguish what is being sold. The art pieces look a like. But very attractive.

It is a chain of shops. There are nicely curved sculptures; locally woven baskets, all sizes of mats, masks, leather sandals, dolls, and pictures. The list is endless.  Most of the art pieces found here depict Rwanda’s cultural heritage. No wonder when you visit this home for handicrafts, you find people of all ages.

“Our business is growing day by day. It was difficult at the start but today, we have improved. For instance, most of our customers will come back and buy,” says Clementine Nsengimana, who owns a stall at the village.

She joined this cooperative in 2005. She says rent is affordable. “How much you pay for rent is defined by what you have sold. If you get several clients that buy your art pieces, you pay a higher rent but it is fine,” said Nsengimana in an interview last week. 

There are about 500 members under this association. While at the Artists Village, I find many people crowded here shopping. They look excited; a sign that they love what they are buying.

“One day, I bought a mat and everybody back home was asking me where I bought it from. My boyfriend last year came and bought art pieces here,” says Hannah, an American girl I found shopping. She lives in America.

They used to operate near hotel des Mille Collines before they were given this place by the government. They say at Mille Collines, the place was becoming smaller and congested.

“Here, the place is bigger and accommodates more than 500 people,” explains Agnes Mukanyarwaya, a member. She has been here for more than three years.

According to Justin Turasinze, an employee at the cooperative, the local market is growing but their biggest clientele is the tourists. “Since 2004, the number of tourists who visit our centre has been growing. When they go back, they spread the message about our pieces,” Turasinze says.

There is a lot of cultural heritage embedded inside these handcrafts and many Rwandans find it important to keep something depicting their culture in their homes.

“We are earning some good money here which is enough for sustaining us and our families,” says Eugene Kayiranga, who says he is one of the founding members

Handicrafts in Rwanda are becoming lucrative and according to members, there are plans to start an online marketing strategy to attract buyers from outside Rwanda.

Kayiranga says the problem is that the members need to get to the people and outsiders need to know what we are doing. “You can’t achieve what you want when customers are not aware of what is happening. “We don’t have enough money to sustain an online marketing strategy,” Kayiranga explains.

Most of the art products are supplied to them by local producers. They are mainly from various associations scattered throughout the country. These have become the suppliers of baskets which have become a trade mark of Rwanda internationally.

The art pieces don’t have fixed prices. It is negotiable. I discover that every person offers his or her own price according to how much they have liked a particular piece.

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