Ten years after genocide wracked the African nation of Rwanda, killing off as much as one-fourth of its total population, 27-year-old Monica Umwari is hiring former victims with hopes of taking her homegrown business international.
Umwari’s two-year-old business, Angaza Ltd.,uses recycled materials — think rice sacks, discarded billboard banners and other scraps of material — to produce hundreds of colorful purses, wallets, laptop bags and totes that are sold in local shops, museums and hotels.
In July, Umwari got to travel to the U.S. through the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women’s Peace through Business program, which brought 27 female entrepreneurs from Rwanda and Afghanistan to the U.S. for mentorship.
Umwari spent three weeks in the U.S., meeting with other entrepreneurs and observing the way American businesses operate, from their social media presences to their social-responsibility pledges.
Umwari also got a front-row seat to America’s cultural eccentricities: ice in tea, for example (“I don’t get the logic,” she said), and pet-owner relationships so intimate that entire industries thrive on them.
“In America, people love their pets so much,” Umwari said, laughing. “They stay inside your house…(they) are part of their family.”
But for all the business tips she learned from observing U.S. commerce, there’s a lot we can learn from her operations in Rwanda, as well.
Here are just a few:
1. Even trash can make for business inspiration: Umwari’s father is a geologist with the Rwandan government, and her mother is a serial entrepreneur who has run a restaurant, a salon, a women’s clothing store and now a printing company. So at a young age, Umwari learned to train her eyes on business opportunity.
When she and a friend were helping with the printing company and her friend mentioned that the billboard scraps could be reused, the pair started brainstorming.
Soon after, they spent 15,000 Rwandan franks (about $22 U.S. dollars) to apply for a business license. One business day later — the process moves much faster than it does in the U.S., Umwari said — she and her friend were official business partners.
2. If you’ve got a compelling story, market it: To get the raw materials to make their wares, Umwari and her partner tapped into social-responsibility programs at major companies in the area. A major bottling company was thrilled to give Angaza Ltd. their old billboard trash for free. “That’s like giving back to the community,” Umwari said, especially when they can publicize that they are not only recycling, but are helping create jobs for former victims of the genocide.
Umwari also found customers love to hear the Angaza Ltd. story, so they added descriptive tags on all their wares. It’s a small investment with big payoff, she said, as clients feel a stronger kinship with the brand and its mission.
3. Even a startup needs a division of labor: Umwari said that when she and her business partner started the company, they thought they would tackle everything as a pair, from design to operations to marketing.
They soon discovered that way of doing business wasn’t efficient — or harmonious.
“We don’t have the same talents or skills,” she said. “And you have to accept each other.” So now, Umwari’s partner, who has a creative eye, is tasked with coming up with designs. Umwari, who has a different set of creative skills, handles marketing.
4. Establish your brand before executing huge capital outlays: Umwari has big plans for Angaza Ltd. She wants to hire more tailors and open a dedicated retail location in addition to selling their wares at coffee houses and souvenir shops. But first, she said, she and her business partner are trying to get their financials in line. That saves them from killing a great business idea by overextending themselves, she said.
And when they do add more staff, they’ll do it slowly — such as adding only two more tailors, for example.
5. Eliminate weak links by over-communicating expectations: Initially, their designated tailor was missing deadlines. Frustrated, Umwari and her business partner would put pressure on him to deliver more quickly. That’s when she realized that she should have started their business relationship with clear-cut expectations, explaining the quality of work they wanted and the deadlines for completion.
“We thought he would immediately understand what (we) want,” Umwari said. But, “you have to get where all of you can work together and deliver the goals of the company.”
6. Recognize that great ideas will always be copied: When she started the business, Umwari wasted a lot of energy worrying about other companies’ trying to create similar products.“We worked so hard to get it protected, to protect our rights,” she said. But along the way, she realized that she needed to spend less time trying to stave off the inevitable and more time building her startup into the one customers would most want to do business with.
“What you need to work on,” Umwari said, “is being more creative, customer care and our delivery.”