A Rwandan entrepreneur on turning pumpkins into profit

Marie Ange Mukagahima

For many years, pumpkin was regarded as one of the less important crops in Rwanda. To change this mindset, Marie Ange Mukagahima began extensive research on pumpkin processing to see how more value could be added to the product beyond making soup – which is basically what most people use pumpkin for in the country.

The result is Zima Enterprise, a pumpkin processing company that makes pastries, flour, roasted seeds and seed oil, founded in 2016.

Take us back to the beginning

Growing up in the district of Muhanga, Mukagahima knew that while lots of pumpkins are grown in her community, the crop only fetched low prices, and is often considered “women food”.

“Farmers do not really make much profit from the product,” says Mukagahima.

Curious about what value could be added to pumpkin, Mukagahima began researching the crop and discovered its nutritional values. Pumpkin is rich in dietary fibres, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and it also does not increase cholesterol levels.

“I thought of how pumpkins could be processed into pastries, how it could help farmers and provide jobs to the unemployed while generating profit for me,” Mukagahima recalls.

She began to search the internet for recipes, especially how to make breads from pumpkin. To experiment with these recipes, she asked a nearby bakery to allow her to use its oven to bake pumpkin bread. After baking the first batch, she gave samples to her neighbours for feedback. “They were really impressed. This encouraged me to apply for the DOT Rwanda’s Social Enterprise Competition in 2017, which I won.”

In the same year, Mukagahima emerged as an outstanding young entrepreneur in the Southern Province at the YouthConnekt Awards. As the winner of the competition, she was hosted in an incubator owned by Workforce Development Authority (WDA), given an oven and a solar dryer for her business, and awarded a cash prize of Rwf 1 million (US$1,116). She also won the National YouthConnekt Awards and walked away with Rwf 5 million ($5,579). She used all this money to set up her business and left the incubator in early 2018. She has since rented a place for her bakery, and has a small shop in town where she sells her products.

How did the company grow into the business it is today?

Mukagahima intends to use her business to solve social issues like youth unemployment, rural farmers’ development and the shortage of food supply.

Apart from creating employment, Mukagahima helps farmers to negotiate better prices for their crops. She currently works with two cooperatives that grow pumpkins. One cooperative is in her hometown, Muhanga, while the other is in the eastern province of Rwanda. Mukagahima is the president of both cooperatives. She provides the farmers with free pumpkin seeds and in return, the farmers assure her of a steady supply of pumpkins for processing.

“The good thing about pumpkins is that they are not seasonal. They grow after six months and keep growing for the next six months without planting a fresh seed,” says Mukagahima.

At the moment, Zima Enterprise has only one competitor in Rwanda who produces pumpkin seed oil and cookies from the flour.

Surely it couldn’t have been that easy?

“Running a business isn’t an easy task. It requires one to work harder and think deeper,” says Mukagahima. “When we started, we didn’t have any equipment and the pastries we make require this, especially if we want to make it in large quantities for the mass market.” This equipment is unfortunately not manufactured locally, she says.

Finding an appropriate location for her company to meet the Rwanda Standards Board’s requirements, and convincing people of the health benefits of the product, were other challenges the business faced in its first year.

She remembers the time when she just moved to the new store. There were no customers and she had used the little capital she had to make the pastries. However, most of the pastries spoiled because of a lack of buyers. This taught her how to search for new markets and what quantities to produce.

In spite of these challenges, Mukagahima says her business has achieved tremendous progress in its elementary years. She has been able to gain market acceptance through trade shows, exhibitions, and advertisements which she used to raise awareness on the health benefits of pumpkin. Her wish is to empower and teach other youth about the pumpkin business to enable them to start up small businesses to reduce the rate of unemployment in her country.

Anything we can learn from her experiences?

Mukagahima attributes her success in the market to perseverance, hard work and the openness to learn from other entrepreneurs.

In future, she hopes to supply her product to all regions in Rwanda and even export them to neighbouring countries in East Africa and then to China. To do this, she plans to improve the quality of her products and buy machines that will help increase her production volume.

“Having my own business has afforded me to be a job creator and not a job seeker – which has always been my dream,” says Mukagahima, who has now been able to employ five permanent workers along with casual workers. “Now, my innovation and determination have become a wake-up motivation to several youth who still thought of office jobs only.”