Rwandan entrepreneur Marie Ange Mukagahima noticed how Rwandans have seen pumpkin as a less important crop useful for soup making only, the zeal to change this mindset which has existed for many yes , drove her to conduct extensive research on pumpkin processing to discover more ways it can be beneficial to people.
This led to the establishment of Zima Enterprise, a pumpkin processing company that makes pastries, flour, roasted seeds and seed oil, founded in 2016.
Below is an excerpt from an exclusive interview on her entrepreneur journey:
Take us back to the beginning
Growing up in Muhanga, Mukagahima knew that while lots of pumpkins are grown in her community, the crop has low consuming and purchasing power, and is often considered “women food”.
“Farmers do not really make much profit from the product,” says Mukagahima. As a young girl, she wondered why pumpkin was seen as an inferior crop despite its nutritional value as well as its medicinal powers against deadly non-transmitted diseases like diabetes and prostate cancer.
Curious about what value could be added to pumpkin, Mukagahima began research on pumpkins and found out how nutritious they are and how many people need them for their health. This was due to the crop being rich in dietary fibres, vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants, 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 their oven to make 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 1m (US$1,116). She also won the National YouthConnekt Awards and walked away with Rwf 5m ($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 got 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 pumpkin for processing, at a low cost.
“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 a time when they had just moved to their new store. They had no customers and had used the little capital she had to make the pastries. However, because they didn’t have many customers at that time, most of the pastries spoiled. This taught her how to search for new markets and what quantities to bring to a new place.
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 on the quality of her products and buy machines that will help increase her production volume in a short time.
“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 has become a wake-up motivation to several youth who still thought of office jobs only.”