JACKIE M. GATERA still recalls that day, in 2006, when as an exhibitor at the Gikondo Expo Grounds, her bamboo and rattan furniture stall caught the eye of the first citizen.
The President was impressed to learn that the furniture was locally made, from locally sourced bamboo and rattan wood. Gatera explained to the President that not only was she making the furniture herself, from her private workshop in Kigali, she also offered training and employment to some economically disadvantaged girls.
Impressed by the innovation, the President seconded the young entrepreneur for a study tour to China, specifically to further her knowledge on bamboo-inspired art and craft.
That tour turned out to be a business orientation trip, as Gatera soon discovered that the bamboo tree served more purposes than just being a source of raw material for making furniture.
“I was taken to visit a factory that cans bamboo food. I had never known that bamboo shoots can be nutritious and delicious food.” Before her shock at the bamboo food factory could even subside, she was taken on a visit to a bamboo beer factory, then a bamboo textile plant where cloth is made from bamboo pulp.
Then her last bamboo adventure came when she was taken on tour of a 27,000-sq km bamboo plantation. After a long, thoughtful pause, she declares dramatically that “that is even bigger than the whole of Burundi!”
“The President gave me the best start in my life, although he may not even be aware,” she notes. “If you don’t travel, you can’t have comparative knowledge of what is happening elsewhere. After seeing the various wonders of the bamboo tree, and after seeing how the private sector works in a developed economy, my mind was awakened.”
Coming to Kinigi
When the China trip wound up, Gatera was glad to return home and make her contribution to the development of her motherland. “After the training, I developed a thirst to develop myself and be big.”
Aware of the many guarantees available to women in many financial institutions, she approached Bank of Kigali for a long-term business loan, her eyes fixed on the promising tourism and hospitality sector.
Gatera would end up in Kinigi, Musanze for two main reasons: It had the best bamboo plantations in the country, on account of the cool and wet climate; and it was the perfect setting for the kind of business she was now venturing into.
So in May 2009, using the bank loan and personal savings, she embarked on her most ambitious business undertaking to date: construction of the Le Bambou Gorilla Lodge in Kinigi, Musanze.
However, she carried on with her bamboo furniture workshop in Kigali, at which she enrolled more needy girls for training in bamboo furniture making.
“I came to Kinigi in search of long, straight bamboo trees, because the ones in Kigali are usually bent, and sure enough, I found the best quality here.” In Kinigi, she engaged the local peasants, buying the trees from them and transporting them to Kigali. However, the conservationist in her soon prevailed, and “I started feeling the need to conserve the bamboo. I was just taking, not giving.”
The idea was to give the local people basic training in propagating bamboo and cultivation in order to keep replenishing the fields.
“I went with a proposal to the Private Sector Federation, where I was advised to contact GTZ, and they agreed to fund 50% of the training budget, while I came up with the rest. We gave them training in propagation, furniture-making, and basic managerial skills. In all, we trained 60 farmers.”
After the training, this group pooled resources and built a bamboo furniture workshop in Kinigi, from which they sell their wares to mostly gorilla-tracking tourists.
Having helped the local farmers to set up, it was now time for Gatera to embark on her own. At her new site for the gorilla lodge, she planted as many bamboo trees as she could, such that today, the bamboo thickets along the driveway to the place compete for attention with the widely abundant eucalyptus trees.
The lodge sits on a deliberate and organic mix of bamboo thickets, local shrub and flowers, but it is obvious that the bamboo is a special item here. For instance, all the furniture inside the private cottages and suites is made from bamboo and cane. That includes beds and even bulb holders.
Outside, bamboo thickets act as a live hedge around the facility, and the cottages are actually shrouded in thick bamboo such that the next cottage is totally cut off from view.
But perhaps the best bamboo-inspired creation at Le Bambou is the vast ceiling of the lounge bar, woven into nice patterns from splintered bamboo stalks.
Le Bambou’s majestic presence at the base of the Volcanoes National Park espouses what the lady behind the venture stands for—that is entrepreneurship with an inclination to nature conservation and community involvement.
Leading by example
The facility employs about twenty permanent staff and even more on part-time. This has not stopped the owner from being hands-on as well. Not only is she the proprietor and managing director, she also doubles as a tour guide and driver as and when the situation demands. Particularly, she steps in when she has a high profile delegation that would wish to venture a little further from the Volcanoes, to other tourist destinations like the Nyungwe Forest National Park, the Congo Nile Trail, and Akagera. Or you will find her making airport pick-ups and drop offs in her Land Cruiser Prado.
Married to Mr Gatera Emmanuel, with four children, she has also adopted three kids, “to bring them up, educate them and give them a chance for a good life ahead of them”.