Regis Umugiraneza, a recent graduate in Agribusiness from the University of Rwanda, with his love for sweet potatoes and having grown up in an area where it grows locally, was frustrated with how people at home never ate them in different ways apart from being steamed and served with a cup of milk for dinner. As he kept searching for ways he could add value to sweet potatoes, during a university food science field trip in 2011, he was inspired and encouraged to find out that Mr. Sana Gerard, a prominent entrepreneur in Rwanda,
manufactures cakes and biscuits from sweet potatoes. Regis explains that, ‘‘this was the beginning of finding answers to a lot of questions and ideas I had, but also an opportunity and challenge for me to bring out the creativity and innovation in me’’.
To feed his curiosity and enhance his knowledge of value chain opportunities for sweet potatoes, he decided to do his undergraduate research dissertation in cost benefit analysis on sweet potatoes in Rwanda, with the help of the Rwanda Ministry of Agriculture. A month later he decided to invest in making spaghetti from sweet potatoes grown locally.
“At first, this sounded like a very crazy, impossible idea to a lot of people and to myself, but I continued to research more and more and found answers to a lot of questions and criticisms other people and myself had. Although a lot of people criticized me, I saw this as an opportunity and a chance to learn more about my idea rather than giving up,’’ Regis says.
Since 2011, he has been researching and testing his product to prepare for its launch on the market. With the help of University of Rwanda’s Food Science laboratory and research department, Regis was able to make several sample products and is finally ready to pursue his business idea. To start off with, he will mainly sell his sweet potato spaghetti in big supermarkets and small local shops in Kigali. He has already done door to door marketing to spread the news about his new innovative product, so people learn more about it and know where they can find it. Recent feedback from his customers indicated that children enjoyed the food a lot, but Regis’ product can give you more than just a tasty dish. He explains that sweet potato spaghetti is good for pregnant women as it is an excellent source of vitamin A. It is also rich in vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin C, copper and manganese to name a few. Although Regis likes to combine sweet potato spaghetti with meat and salad dishes, he says it is also delicious without any other food supplement.
“My plan now is to buy a new better manufacturing machine from either Italy or China so I can increase my production to at least 100 kg per hour and employ more people to help me grow my business, and within 3 years to increase my production to at least 1 tone per hour.” He adds.
Regis mentioned that one of the most important things he has learned in the process is that you don’t need a lot of money to become an entrepreneur or to achieve something you really want in life. What you need is to look at what you do have and the resources around you, especially your network. For example, last month Regis was invited to a meeting hosted by Milli Collines hotel in Kigali where he met with successful local business people whose careers he grew up following and other elderly experienced entrepreneurs whose knowledge, experience and connections he could tap into. He presented his business idea to them which eventually led to the formation of a team of pro-bono board members for his business in order to hold him accountable and guide him to avoid common business mistakes naïve young entrepreneurs make. On top of that, he was given an office for free and received a membership in the Private Sector Federation (a private sector development board in Rwanda) as a gift. A journalist also got on board to assist Regis with his marketing strategies and customer relations. Many aspects of starting-up a business which would have cost a lot of money, Regis luckily obtained in other ways.
He expressed, “I don’t believe that poverty is a lack of wealth but rather a lack of opportunities for someone to bring out the best of them, and to grow to their full potential to contribute to the well being of their families, friends and societies.”
Writen Violet Busingye- Programme Officer for SPARK Kigali, Rwanda