Entrepreneur trades corporate world for coffee shop business in Rwanda

Last year Jean-Philippe Kayobotsi started Brioche, an upscale bakery and coffee business that today operates four stores in Rwanda’s capital Kigali. Having worked for organisations such as Deloitte and the African Development Bank, Kayobotsi decided to leave the corporate world to try his hand at entrepreneurship.

Brioche operates four outlets in Kigali

Brioche operates four outlets in Kigali

The Rwandan-Belgian entrepreneur tells Dinfin Mulupi why he started Brioche and about some of the challenges of running the business.

You had a successful career travelling the world and mingling with the who’s who in corporate and government. Why leave all that to start a bakery and coffee business?

I have had the chance to experience so far a very fulfilling, interesting and varied career. I am grateful for that. Working again for a startup is just part of a career that for some may not have a common thread but for me makes perfect sense.

More concretely, since I finished my executive MBA at the University of Chicago, I felt the desire to try to put all what I had learned in practice and the best way to do that and experiment with all the strategic, financial and management tools and techniques is entrepreneurship. When the opportunity arose, I went for it. Entrepreneurship is also a great way to continue learning, something which I enjoy a lot. I find that entrepreneurship forces you to learn an incredible amount of new things at a very fast pace and on a daily basis.

Leaving the world I was in to start Brioche was not so difficult. I did have a few sleepless nights and long discussions with my wife. But somehow, I already knew what I wanted and was going to do.

Brioche is more than a coffee shop in fact. It started out as a bakery/pastry/coffee shop but now our offering has broadened to include meals such as hamburgers, pasta and others. The common thread in our offering? Quality. With the growth and sophistication of the African markets, we believe that there is a demand for quality products and service. I have been fortunate to travel quite a bit and enjoy very much quality food and quality service. It is thus a sector I am passionate about and it is easy to ask myself every day, “does Brioche provide to its clients what I would like to experience?”

You have expanded the business and now operate four stores in Kigali. What would you attribute the growth and success to?

The expansion of Brioche is really the result of the demand we have witnessed. Even though our products are relatively new for our market and despite the fact that we are a bit pricey because of the type of ingredients we use, we really got a positive and enthusiastic response from the market. The enthusiasm was not only for the products but also for the warm and cosy environment and friendly service.

We believe that the growth of Brioche is an indicator of what Rwandans like and aspire to. When we opened our first boutique, many people thanked us for it. It seemed a bit weird to us until we tried to understand a bit more and realised that people felt something like “waouh, we in Rwanda also deserve something like this”. The middle class is of course starting to grow, even though there is still much to be done. But we believe that over time, it will become a sizeable market that will attract more retail/consumer businesses and thus more competition.

Tell us about the challenges of running this business.

The “people issue” is one of the major challenges we face. Clients get very easily accustomed to quality products and service. So once you provide a certain standard, they do not accept anything less. To the contrary, they want even better and faster… But for the staff, the need for consistent excellence and continuous improvement is sometimes more difficult to grasp. Yet, all in all, we are very proud of our staff and what they have managed to achieve.

Another challenge is trying to source quality ingredients locally. The bakery and pastry culture in Europe, for example, goes a long way back, together with the dairy products and flour tradition. Finding such quality ingredients locally is not easy. There is a lot of catch-up to do. But we have started to work with some local producers and we are hopeful that they will be able to progressively improve the quality of their products. But this is a long-term effort.

Where do you see the company in five years?

We are a small company so we need to make sure we do not overstretch. For the immediate future, it is important for us to ensure that our entire offering is well known and is quality consistent. That is what we want to focus on currently. In the future, should time and financials allow, we would like to expand cautiously our network of boutiques and try to get the Brioche experience to even more people.

For foreign investors, what are the ingredients for success in Rwanda?

Rwanda is indeed a very easy place to start a business. The ingredients to succeed in Rwanda, I believe, are the same as in any other market: you need to bring value to your customers. Besides, you might want to come in for the long-term and be patient enough to grow with the growth of the country.