The Force Behind the Kigali Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market
It was in February, during my first visit at the 19th Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market, in Kigali Serena Hotel. I remember hearing the joyous laughter and sensing the crisp vitality before seeing the woman who was cheering my homeware purchases up.
Coming from a country where farmers’ markets are a weekly neighborhood occasion and are valued as spots to socialize, express your creativity, and connect with your community, I wanted to learn more about this unique-in-Kigali entrepreneurial act, which brings producers and the public together.
The answers and questions of the interview have been edited for clarity, as our conversation naturally evolved into a friendly chat about motherhood, hard work, and of course, food.
How do you feel about being interviewed?
I love talking about the market. This is how you meet like-minded people. The market is a community; you cannot work alone. The only part I get uncomfortable with is talking about myself. Yes, I started the market, but without the vendors and the consumers, there’s no business.
What personality traits have helped you to thrive?
You cannot be an extreme introvert because you continuously work with people. However, I am not a full extrovert either. When I am with people, I am really in, but I also enjoy me-time. Between the markets, I blog, attend interviews, and visit potential vendors, most of which involves working alone from home. You also need patience, curiosity, quick-thinking, and an eye for quality.
How did it all start?
I have worked passionately in the food and beverage industry for 16 years.
I arrived in Rwanda four years ago. I started working with Kigali Farms, one of the biggest mushroom farms in East Africa, as the head of sales first, and then as an exclusive distributor. During that time, I met many producers who were suffering because of the middlemen. I find this so unfair; I hate seeing people taking advantage of other people like that. The only difference between the farmer and the middleman is knowledge. If you are going to be a middleman, empower the people you are getting the produce from and are the backbone of your business. If you treat them well, you elevate their status, and you grow with them. So, when I was distributing the mushrooms to hotels and restaurants, I built relationships, and I naturally started connecting producers with businesses.
After I parted with Kigali Farms in 2016, I started doing pop-up markets with a plastic table, a chair, and my small car packed with veggies.
I started with one farmer, and by the end of the first month, I had three. By the end of the third month, I had ten different products. I couldn’t handle the volume, plus I was becoming the middleman, which I didn’t want. So, thinking that there must be a better way to do this, I went back to the books. There was this blog: What’s the difference between a pop-up market and a farmers’ market? The more I was reading about it, the more sense it made: “That’s it! I don’t have to be the one selling the product.”
And the first market takes place. Can you tell us about it?
We started in June 2017 with seven vendors and me selling other farmers’ products. Fifty people attended our first market in Casa Keza. I soon realized that some of the practices of European, Asian, and American farmers’ markets I had read about wouldn’t work in Rwanda. For example, in America vendors carry their own set up (e.g., tents, tables, etc.). The challenges here are different, and I am continually looking for new ways to supplement the market and promote it.
Thankfully, I am creative. I have made all our flyers, and I am a consultant for the vendors, who often pay me in produce.
What’s one of the biggest challenges?
I currently work with 110 vendors. Sometimes receiving everyone’s opinion at once, especially when you are trying something new, can be demoralizing. They are those who approach you with constructive criticism and those who don’t keep in mind your feelings. So, to be able to absorb the comments at my own pace, I communicate information via a Whatsapp broadcast link, and once a month, I put out a vendors’ survey.
How would you explain your progress?
I have reached this point because I have earned the vendors’ trust.
I wouldn’t partner with someone who is against my vision or doesn’t understand the concept of community, exchange, and support.
With some vendors, we have been together since the beginning, for 19 months. But it’s natural for vendors to shift from small to a medium-sized enterprise, and leave the market. That’s fine, they make room for other small businesses, and even though they are not in the market anymore, they remain a part of our network.
What are your criteria for the products that make it to the market?
The market supports producers. Then, is it made in Rwanda? What materials are you using? How sustainable are you? Are you taking the trash out of the community and changing it into something functional?
On the 6th of April, you are taking the market for the first time outside of Kigali, to your hometown in Mombasa, Kenya.
I thought that if I connect a farmer from Rwanda with a farmer in Kenya, we won’t have food rotting.
The two markets will be interlinked, and Kenyan vendors will be able to bring their products to Rwanda, and vice versa. This means more exposure for hard-working and talented vendors from both countries.
Our community’s message is “buy local, support local” and trace the origins of your food. As a consumer, the money you will spend at the market is likely to stay within the community.
What’s your vision of the market?
The market is not just about selling stuff. Children can play here, you can have meals, or hang out with friends. “Hey what are you doing today? Let’s go and chill at the market.” I imagine a place where you can do yoga, have a business meeting, and recycle your waste.
I want people to understand that there’s quality in the market. Don’t come to bargain. When you look at the product, I want you to go “Wow! This is good.” I like the shock in people’s faces when the value is lower than the figure they had in their head.
What keeps you going?
When you love something, it becomes second nature. You do it and time moves so quickly. Motivation comes automatically. You get inspiration from everything because your mind never switches off.
The Kigali Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market (FAAM) occurs on the first Saturday of every month. April’s market will be in Mombasa on April 6th, the first outside Rwanda. Next market in Kigali will be May 4th, 2019.