With only Rwf 3500, four old chairs and two tables previously solicited from family and friends, in a small garage in Gikondo, Zulfat Mukarubega started a restaurant. The year was 1979. Last year, over 30 years later Zulfat’s business entity, the Rwanda Tourism University College (RTUC) was listed the seventh biggest local investment registered. According to RDB with about $15.7 million (Rwf9.4 billion), she is now intending to expand her interest in real estate and construction activities. With this investment, she is probably Rwanda’s richest female entrepreneur. In an interview with The Chronicles’ Matthew Rwahigi she talks about her journey through the business world and the muddy waters she swam to success. Below are the excerpts.
Take us through the journey of your business life…
When I started it wasn’t common for a woman to do business. I had saved Rwf5,000 from my previous employment where I worked as a secretary in Gikondo. In this place there were a number of warehouses and those who manned them didn’t have a lot of choices for meals. With my savings, utensils from my home and furniture from friends and family I started off a business with only Rwf3, 500 as operational capital.
I bought the essentials and started to serve breakfast. The profits went on to cater for lunch requirements. After a year, I went into merchandising. I developed ‘hunger’ for changing the impression about customer care in restaurants and hotels. The idea of RTUC (Rwanda Tourism University College) was born and it was and still the first of its kind.
RTUC now offers technical, theoretical and practice knowledge to those involved in service delivery which involves short courses and degrees for hoteliers plus a degree in Business Information Technology. We now have more than 2500 students.
How much is your business worth at present?
In the previous year of 2011, my business was worth Rwf2.2 billion but I expect that the value has gone up.
That’s a lot. Where do you get the money to run this business?
Money is never a problem in running a business; all that matters is planning. Personally I focus on using the little money I have and let the support come in later from banks and elsewhere. I have also had support from government which sponsors some of the students at the university.
How many people do you employ?
Our work force is now composed of 124 employees working in both the Kigali and Gisenyi campuses.
When did you get your first one million Francs?
Because of the strategies I was using and the efforts I invested in minimising my expenses in business, I hit the one million mark a little sooner. Like for the whole first year in business, I used to walk about twelve kilometres to and from my home in Nyamirambo. My work place was in Gikondo. This was because I needed to save.
What did you use it with?
Of course I did not try to improve my family’s living standards in haste. Instead, I saw another opportunity in merchandising.
You were registered as one of the biggest investors in 2011, how big is the investment?
The money I injected in business in 2011 was around Rwf500 million.
What is your secret to success?
The secret is categorised in two. First … identifying one’s potential and the field in which they can best exploit that potential. The other was starting a business in the best interests of solving certain problems that existed in our society. This is different from starting a business because you want to make money.
Are there problems you have encountered in your business life that you think were as a result of being a woman?
I would tell people about this project and rather than professionally criticise it, they would tell me that “uwo numurengwe wabagore bafashe kugafaranga” (my idea is day dreaming. It’s being ambitious because you have gotten some little money). This could at times discourage me but later I could rise and pursue my dreams.
How do you manage family and work?
First of all, I am a divorced woman. I have been divorced since 2000. Sometimes you know certain ambitions can cost you in one way or another. My children are grown up, the youngest is sixteen years old. We do everything together, so there is no problem in handling both family and work. It is important that women understand that equality does not mean ceasing to respect their husbands but it is a way of helping them to build a better home . Some men end up thinking that a rich woman is a threat rather than an opportunity to their families.
Why aren’t there many Rwandan women in business?
There are very few entrepreneurs in general. But for women, many of them fail to create new ideas mainly because they want to have things the easy way. They do what others have done thinking that these things will give them similar results. On the contrary, practice has revealed that women can actually do much more than ever was expected.
Where do you see the Rwandan businesswoman in the next five years?
I can best speculate by looking at what Rwandan businesswomen have achieved in the past five years. When I had just started the RTUC project in 2006, bankers told me, “this is a man’s project and so we cannot finance a woman to do it because we are not sure she can succeed at it”. But even under such conditions, women have fully been productive in business to the extent that a woman receives credit for a big investment, beating men to it. This means that in Rwanda today, with a President who has fully supported women’s participation in all sectors; in five years to come enterprises run by women might be the majority.