Rwanda’s leading entrepreneur Sina Gérard is the founder of Sina Gerard Urwibutso Enterprise, among whose products is the highly successful and extra hot Akabanga chilli oil. Having built up his agri-business empire from scratch, Mr Gérard is keen to inspire other budding entrepreneurs and innovative minds to launch their own businesses too. Here he discusses the company’s challenges and successes, his foundation college encouraging innovation in the country’s youth, and his desire to make a difference in Rwanda by providing farmers with more business opportunities.
Africa is the youngest continent in the world and will have 1 billion workers by 2040. As agriculture employs the largest part of the population, what are the challenges and how should they be addressed?
It is more of an opportunity than a challenge. The difficulty is to enhance communication amongst African countries. However, with the regional integration efforts that have been developing, such as the construction of common routes, this problem of communication will be resolved. It is a certainty that regional businesses will be facilitated. At the moment, it is easier for us to sell to the European and American markets than the African ones. However, I am confident that thanks to the common growing infrastructural projects the region is undergoing our continent will become a favorable place for trade and business.
As Rwanda is embarking on mega projects such as the KivuWatt plant or the Northern and Central Corridors, how do you expect this will affect your company?
It will help us tremendously. Because we acquire a lot of our raw materials from neighboring countries, these projects are a necessity to facilitate our operations. Furthermore, the new routes that you pointed out will also greatly increase our export potential. At Sina Gerard Urwibutso Enterprise, we have recently increased our production capacity so that when these projects are finalized, we will be able to maximize their potential.
Since 2000, Sina Gerard Urwibutso has started a program of diversification of its products and services, opening restaurants and a catering service. You also introduced oil from passion fruit seeds in 2007, cereal-based flour in 2008, yogurt in 2009, packaged peanuts in 2010, wine in 2011 and mineral water in 2012. Where does this commitment to diversify come from and what future strategies will be implemented?
Diversification is key to us. Our brand participated in international expositions beyond the borders of Africa. We traveled to Europe and the USA to exhibit our products, and as we showed the world what we did, the world showed us what they do. This exposition to foreign products inspired us. We then started developing, in Rwanda, products that were originally produced elsewhere. As for the future, we invest heavily in knowledge transfer. We have opened a school – Sina Gerard Foundation College – to train and educate the youth with regards to innovation. This international knowledge we have acquired must be transferred to the youth so that they become innovators.
It is expected that agricultural exports will increase in average from 19.2% to 28% p.a. by 2018. In 2016, you acquired an important trademark certification to protect the Akabanga chilli oil brand. What are your future strategies to increase exports and what are the markets you want to penetrate?
We give a great deal of importance to the creation of new projects. Our company is forward-looking and innovative. We are currently working on concentrated juice for the European market. In Europe and the US there is a high demand for such types of juices. This will also help our farmers. Currently, we have agriculture workers who produce the right products, but they do not have the right demand to sell these products. We closely monitor Europe’s market demand. On the one hand, we want to export to Europe because it is attractive for us. On the other hand, we want to make a difference here in Rwanda by providing farmers with business opportunities.
In 2014, your main export destinations were EAC (Uganda, Kenya), Oman and Europe (Belgium, UK, France). Why is America not amongst your top export destinations?
The biggest problem is linked to transportation. I visited four states in America and I saw great potential for our products. In fact, we are already exporting to the US in small quantities. We have recently engaged in conversations with potential partners to increase our exports to this market. We are convinced that we can address the US’ demand as exemplified by the recent opening of the first Akabanga shop.
In terms of transportation, Europe is closer to us and it is easier to transport our products there, hence this focus on the European market. I am confident that we will find solutions to reduce cost of transportation, in fact, it’s already happening.
Is there a message you would like to send to our American audience in order to incite them to try your products?
We are ambassadors of quality and the US knows it. We received a quality award in New York City a couple of years ago for our products. We are also proudly ISO certified, proving our obedience to the highest standards of quality, and we are currently working to acquire another international certification.
Since its inception in 1993, your company has always invested in human capital. Employing today over 1,200 employees, the majority being from your region, you have also invested in the construction of a school through your Sina Gerard Foundation College, which today has more than 1,000 students from kindergarten to secondary school. What are the reasons for this dedication to a noble cause? Can you tell us more about your programs?
What pushed me to build this school were the technological changes I noticed on a daily basis. We are educating our children to be familiar with technology because in the future there will be no way around it. In the long term, this commitment to education will become a great advantage of our enterprise. We are training our youth to develop a brighter future.
As a traveler, I had the chance to experience innovation very closely. So my aim became to train my future employees and managers to be at the top of technology. It is useless to bring innovative tools if people don’t know how to use them. It is ideological and business oriented. We push our students to travel so that they become familiar with these new techniques. In the future, it will allow our children to bring back to Rwanda what they learnt in order to efficiently use this knowledge.
You are a self-made man and a successful entrepreneur who started from scratch to build a business empire. You even received the award of the Best Rwandese Entrepreneur. What is the message you want to leave behind?
My message is: come and visit our company. Come and see where I started from and where I am now. It is my duty to invite all children and adults to come and discuss with me. I want to share my life and experience to show the world that it is possible to succeed, regardless of your origin. Today, we are able to produce wine, here in Rwanda. This is an example of how an innovative mindset can make things possible. My goal is to educate people to become forward looking.