Zainab Uwamahoro, arguably one of the most successful women entrepreneurs in Musanze town, needs no introduction in the sprawling tourist town and beyond.
Reason? Her humble journey from a tiny eatery, operating out of a disused cargo container, to a modern restaurant that she operates with her eight beautiful daughters, is talk of the town in Musanze.
Most people know the story of a woman who started out selling tea, chapatti and doughnuts in an empty container with just a kettle and ten liters of milk.
It is that resilient entrepreneurship spirit that culminated into the establishment of the popular 8Shakeys Café, Resto and Takeaway at the same spot where the container once stood, in 1996.
Prior to this big gamble, the soft spoken and light skinned lady had operated a small stall inside Musanze market, but had been frustrated at it. “I used to buy from other retailers in the same market and resell for a small profit,” she recalls.
In 1996, she was involved in a nasty motor bike accident that forced her to reconsider her retail business. “I naturally fell back to the food business because I had done it while we lived in Uganda as refugees,” she says.
At this point, she pauses to stress the significance of her year of birth:
“I was born during the 1959 revolution. My parents—Zakariya Ntenda and Bakamashara Sarah fled with me as a new born baby to Kisoro, in south western Uganda.”
Zainab was to return to Rwanda in 1996, while aged 37.
“When we came back, we didn’t have a house, so we took a government house (kubohoza) near Muhabura Hotel, like most people were doing at that time. Then in 1998, people were asked to start vacating the houses.”
“Our dad was driver whose small income could not sustain the big family. Apart from feeding and educating us, we now didn’t have anywhere to call home,” Shemsa, her eldest daughter added.
Similarly, her mother was haunted by fears of what would befall her daughters and son in the absence of their father. It is with this in mind that she asked her husband for a business start up loan of Rwf 600,000, with which she bought the container.
With no money left on her, Zainab had no choice but to grab a few cooking materials and utensils from the home kitchen to get started.
“I started with one of my daughters, Shani Kayitesi, who was then six years old and in primary school. She used to work in the morning and go to school in the afternoon. I made the chapattis and cooked, while she served customers. At that time people called it container village.”
While Shani was her main helping hand, the rest of the girls came in to help in the evenings after school. Today, Shani is a student of business management at ULK, but every school break, she resumes her duties at the family restaurant.
“I didn’t know if people would come. I just left everything to God,” she recalls.
Determined to see her business grow, Uwamahoro sought the services of Duterimbere Women’s Coop, securing an initial loan of Rwf 50,000, which she used to buy a few utensils and furniture.
The next thing she did was to basically tighten her monopoly on chapatti business that she had just created in the town. “I made good chapatti and tea, and it became talk of the town. People knew it was coming from an empty container but they said it was too good to be true,” she quips.
As her clientele grew, she started getting orders for regular food, so she started off with agatogo. Meanwhile, the orders for milk shot up from just ten liters to as many as 200 liters per day.
“I started hiring staff to help my girls. The space became very crowded, but people didn’t mind to eat while standing. People came all the way from Kigali, Gisenyi, and stopped here just for chapatti.”
She attributes this initial success to three factors: the superior chapatti, her insistence on fresh milk as opposed to powdered milk that some of her competitors served, and the availability of credit facilities to her customers.
At first she bought the milk from dealers, but with the boom in sales, she saved some money and bought a dairy cow after two years in business. This only pushed the demand for milk further, and she started receiving orders from corporate organisations and requests for home deliveries.
“Owning a cow made business sense because we fed it on peelings from the restaurant.”
Not only did she diversify into other milk products like yoghurt, hot and cold milk, she also introduced milk into her chapatti recipe, further giving it a distinct competitive edge. Realising the importance of the cows, Uwamahoro embarked on progressively growing her stock.
Today, it is common knowledge that most government and corporate workers in the town not only flock here for milk and buffet, they also place orders for office deliveries. Actually, some offices dispatch a driver or tea girl with flasks every evening, ahead of the next day’s deliveries.
Everything seemed to be looking up for Uwamahoro’s business, except for one thing: it was housed in a roadside container, and these would soon be outlawed by municipal authorities.
Faced with looming eviction, Uwamahoro took a loan of Rwf 5m from the cooperative in 2008, and with the money embarked on erecting permanent structures.
“I paid back in monthly installments of Rwf 250,000. After winning the trust of the cooperative, I was advanced another loan of Rwf 5m as I paid the last installment.” With the new loan, she was able to erect a small residential unit at the back of the restaurant to accommodate the family. “We moved into both the restaurant and the house when they were incomplete, but people kept trust in our service and I am forever grateful for that.”
Today, 8Shakeys is clearly the most popular restaurant in Musanze town, and the reasons for this are many. Not only does it boast the most sought-after buffet in Musanze, it also has a long-running reputation for some of the very best chapattis you can find in the town.
That is as far as the food goes. 8Shakeys is also rumored to have some of the most eye-catching wait staff in the local hospitality industry. Zainab runs the eatery along the traditional family business model, with her eight daughters and a son.
The name, 8Shakeys was actually coined to capture the essence of the sibling’s names, which sound similar; Shemsa, Sheila, Shaima, Shani, Sharifa, Shaban, Fatina, Latifa.
But the name 8Shakeys resonates far and wide, not just in Musanze. It has that unmistakable “stop-over” appeal that is synonymous with the popular Nyirangarama stop-over on the Kigali-Musanze highway.
Travelers from Kigali to Musanze or Gisenyi and beyond almost always make it a point to stop here for a quick bite and a drink. They stop here for the buffet, which is open from 11:00 am, and which is some of the best you will get anywhere in the country at Rwf 1,000. Many more make the stop to grab a few chapattis, from which the restaurant derives most of its reputation.
Talking of chapattis, some travelers with huge orders actually place a call with their orders in advance, just to make sure.
It is common to find tourists wielding a local area map for Musanze, trying to locate the “chapatti container” as labeled on the map. Most probably, they had heard of the chapattis from a friend who had visited Rwanda earlier.
Zainab has seen to it that her employees, including her daughters all belong to a coop. “I want them to get the same benefits I got. Whenever they see one among them better their life, they ask to join the cooperative willingly. I want them to get to another level in life apart from their jobs here, because this one is temporary. One day, they should be in position to own something of their own. Something they are passionate about. I encourage them to start small, with the small groups that contribute as little as Rwf 1,000.”
She is all praises for her husband, Asuman Baraga “for giving me time and the freedom to do what I thought was best for the family”. “People should learn to start small and avoid a culture of quick gain. Husbands and wives should work together for the common interest of the family, but above all, husbands should give their wives the time and freedom to think and do what is in the best interest of the family.”
Shemsa, the eldest daughter says: “We’re an open family who don’t hide secrets from each other. We all know where our mum and family came from. We know that at the end of the day, you will be out of a job, but family is always family.”
Shemsa returned recently to the family business fold after a ten year sojourn in China. Like her mum, she is all set on growing the 8Shakeys brand name:
“We want to do various businesses individually, but all of them will be named 8Shakeys.”