In 2003 Christine Murebwayire, a Rwandan mother of four, found her life turned upside down by the death of her husband. He had encouraged her to give up work in order to stay at home and look after their children, and when he died her family no longer had a breadwinner. Murebwayire was forced to rely on handouts from neighbours, and even beg for food in Kigali, the country’s capital.
“It was very hard for me because I was a housemaid – my husband had stopped me from working. So after he passed away I moved around begging,” she told How we made it in Africa through a translator.
With few options and no money, Murebwayire decided to venture into farming and moved to the Mutenderi Sector in the Ngoma District in eastern Rwanda, about 100km from Kigali. She managed to attend a short government agricultural course that encouraged small-scale farmers to form cooperatives, and started speaking to other members of the community about combining their funds and resources to produce banana wine from a family recipe she had learned about as a child.
“So out of that [I convinced] three men and one woman, and when they asked me how much we needed to get started I told them it was 300,000 Rwandan francs (US$370). I didn’t know how to make a business plan… They gave me 160,000 Rwandan francs (about $200) thinking I was just going to eat the money and not do anything.”
But Murebwayire used the money to start growing bananas from high-yield varieties. She then processed them into a sweet, fruity wine which she sold to local bars. It wasn’t long before she had tripled her investors’ money.
“We made more profits and members of the association became more interested. They found things were really moving [quickly] and what they did was shift to selling our local banana wine in bottles. Then government got interested in us and started inviting us to attend training [sessions] on banana wine and processing – and that is how we made it. From there we started aggressively marketing our banana wine platform.”
Murebwayire was also chosen as one of the beneficiaries of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women programme, and won a cash prize which she used to apply for a loan to grow her business.
Today she is the managing director of Co-operative de Production du Vin de Banane (Coproviba) which has grown to 28 members – 20 of whom are women – and works with 43 smallholder farmers. The co-operative produces 5,000 crates of its Ibanga banana wine brand per week, with a 320ml bottle retailing for 400 Rwandan francs ($0.50) at groceries and supermarkets around Rwanda.
“We have now bought new machines, and we want to increase this by around 4,000 crates [per week] in December.”
About 20% of production is exported to the east African markets Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. Murebwayire wants to start exporting to the US next, although still needs certification under the market’s strict FDA food packaging requirements.
“But I hope with our efforts we will get certification through AGOA [a preferential trade agreement that allows duty-free entry of some African products to the US],” she says.
The company also produces fruit juice and banana fibres, which are used to manufacture textiles. This banana fibre is currently sold to SHE, an organisation that produces sanitary pads from the fibre.
Murebwayire’s business has won her a number of accolades and has led to her travelling to the US, Japan and South Africa. She has also been appointed the chairperson of the agriculture and livestock chamber at the Private Sector Federation (PSF), an organisation dedicated to promoting the interests of the Rwandan business. Under her leadership, the chamber has set up collection centres for small-scale potato farmers so that they can better access markets without the use of middle men – who cut into their profits.
Murebwayire also returned to school and earned a certificate in development studies.
“The big lesson I learned here is to never give up and, secondly, to overwork – work beyond the hours. When your business starts growing you can slightly reduce your hours, but make sure you still give it your full time,” she advises others.
“And I am not even shy to say that agriculture can change lives.”