It all began with one croissant.
“The best in Kigali,” declared my roommate as she opened the tin foil and handed me one of the light, flaky morsels, “You have to try one.”
I hold the small creation between my two fingers. It crinkles ever so slightly and little flakes drift down to the kitchen floor. It is still warm. I take a bite. My Kenyan friend would later describe the experience the following way, “Take one bite – just one bite – of Hassan’s croissant and you will cry. I promise you: tears will fall from your eyes.”
I encounter Hassan’s croissants several more times before I meet Hassan himself a couple weeks later at Papyrus. I never noticed the small patisserie adjoining the bar until the day I sought refuge within its quiet yellow walls to answer a phone call. When I hung up, I saw the Masaka Farms shop for the first time – the shelves of baguettes and rounded loaves of bread (called campagnes, as I would later learn) on the back wall, the rows of strawberry and vanilla yogurt, the arrangement of samosas, meatballs, mini-pizzas, croissants, lemon cakes, and cookies beneath the lighted glass fixture, the display of cigars in the corner, and the suspended chalkboard listing the prices of “sambousa,” “gateau,” “yogurt,” etc. completely disregarding any consistency in language with its use of English, French, and Kinyarwanda.
As I approach and bend down to peer at the croissants behind the glass, I suddenly hear a movement and look up to see a man behind the counter.
“Hello, how are you?”
He is an umuzungu. Tufts of thick black hair stick out from beneath the white Givova cap on his head and when he leans in to smile, I see the dimples and triangle of hair on his chin. “You want croissant?” he asks.
“Oh. No, it’s fine. I was just looking,” I say hastily, backing away from the counter.
He laughs. “Here, I take one and warm it for you,” he says. Before I can say anything, he plucks up a croissant with a napkin and throws it in the microwave. I see the green dragon tattoo snaking up the length of his right forearm.
“Ah thank you, but I don’t have any money – ” I start to say as the microwave starts to hum.
“It’s okay. I give it you for free,” he says and smiles again.
I smile back this time. “Thank you,” I say, reaching out my hand, “My name is Lydia.”
“Alex,” he says. We shake hands.
I’m not sure why he decided that he would be “Alex” to me, while the rest of Kigali knows him as “Hassan,” but the name stuck and Hassan became Alex for me for the remainder of my stay in Rwanda.
Two croissants and one week later, it’s Friday and I am back at Papyrus waiting for my friend to arrive. The dance floor is packed and the DJ is playing “Love the way you lie.” I desperately want to dance, and I tap my foot impatiently and hum with Rihanna Just gonna stand there and watch you burn… but I don’t want to enter the bar. Since it is only my third week in Rwanda, I haven’t yet met all my Papyrus friends and, just like in the United States, it really isn’t “safe” to dance alone unless you want to be grabbed or danced on. I decide to stop by the patisserie and wait there instead.
There, Alex is standing behind the counter, shoveling meatballs into a plastic container for one customer. Another customer in line points at a lemon cake while another person asks “Samosas, ca coute combien?”, an umuzungu behind me calls out, “How much are the sandwiches?” Alex hands his current customer change, then without even looking up, directs answers to the others: “Bibili.” “Trois cents.” “One thousand francs.” He doesn’t see me until he has helped the two customers in front of me. When it is my turn, I walk up to the counter and smile. “Comment dit-on five hundred in kinyarwanda?” I ask.
Alex laughs and throws one of the croissants in the microwave. “Cinq cents is maganatanu.”
As I gingerly shift the hot croissant between my fingers and peel off layers of steamy fluffy goodness, I sit for the first time on the cushioned stool that would become my designated perch behind the counter at Masaka Farms patisserie for the next month and a half.
My friend never shows up at Papyrus, but over the course of the next three hours, I learn about the patisserie and hear Alex’s life story between the waves of customers that float into the shop. He is from Lebanon, and he is half-Lebanese, half-Turkish. He came to Rwanda for the first time in 1999 when he was thirteen years old with a three-month contract with a Lebanese cookie-making company. Even though the cooking school in Lebanon only accepts students eighteen years or older, Alex started sneaking in for cooking lessons when he was ten years old. Between attending regular school classes, he also took classes to become a chef. In 2001, when he was fifteen years old, his father abruptly passed away. Alex dropped out of school to support his mother and two younger brothers. That was also when he started smoking. He got a contract in Uganda and started managing a bakery and a restaurant at a supermarket. At sixteen years old, he had over sixty employees working under him. There was one month when he had to wire $300 every day to his family in Lebanon. When the situation at home finally stabilized, he left his position in Uganda, sold the restaurant, and moved to Rwanda to start his own business. He was eighteen years old. He worked in a variety of places all over Kigali before opening the shop at Papyrus where he feeds hungry dancers on the weekends and spends the weekdays in the kitchen mass-producing cookies, cakes, baguettes, etc to supply to supermarkets all over the capital. The supermarkets that he does not supply – for instance, the Kenyan-owned Nakumatt Supermarket at the Union Trade Center – has bakery workers that he trained. Even my favorite internet hub spot, Bourbon Coffee, has workers that he trained to make pastries and ice cream for the cafe.
Although he dropped out of school at 15, he is quicker and better at math than anyone I know. In addition, he has taught himself to be fluent in five languages: Arabic, Swahili, English, French, and Kinyarwanda – he can read, write, comprehend, and speak in all five!
Now, he is thinking of opening a fast food restaurant in Kigali with 24/7 delivery service – it would be the first of its kind in Rwanda. Aside from the relatively new Nakumatt supermarket, all other food businesses in Kigali generally close shop around 11:00 PM. If he were to provide 24/7 delivery, he would have an entire market of hungry customers after midnight, especially the many party-goers that stay up until six or seven in the morning.
However, there are several obstacles to the creation of this business. First of all, there’s the problem of government taxes. At the Papyrus patisserie, Alex only has five or six workers at a time even though he can certainly expand his business to have over one hundred. Why?
If you want to find rampant corruption in Rwanda, just look at the police force and the tax collectors. Hungry for money, the police have the power to pull over just about anybody and give fines for just about anything. To survive, you either need to be rich enough to bribe your way out, attractive enough to flirt your way out, or able to name names of other police officers you know (or have previously bribed) who will guarantee that you can drive away fine-free.
Similarly, the tax collectors in Rwanda are hungry for money. “Must keep the business small,” says Alex, shaking his head. The larger and more blatantly successful your business is, the more unwanted attention you will draw from government hyenas. Since no standard tax rule is set or enforced, the collectors can dictate any amount they wish to obtain from you. In other words, they have the power to make or break your business. During the elections, you hear many stories of wealthy businessmen who parade about in FPR scarves, caps, and Kagame shirts at all the campaign rallies in order to guarantee the security of their businesses. In essence, if you demonstrate your strong support and utility to the government, the government will ensure that your business is not targeted for taxes.
Part of the reason for this is because the government owns almost all of the successful products in Rwanda. From Fantas to Primus beers, Bourbon Coffee, Inyange yogurt and juices – the government sets its price just below the price of its competitors. However, when a competitor successful threatens the government’s market throne, either with quantity or quality, the government occasionally exercises its ability to ensure the elimination of such a threat through taxes. A successful business, therefore, has to be deceptively small in operation in order to survive within such a system.
This means that running a thriving business requires a lot of work. Alex often forgets to eat for days, smokes dozens of packets of cigarettes (even though he always says, “I am trying to reduce”), and sleeps only three or four hours a day – or often, not at all. He says with a laugh, “If my mom, she see how small my face right now, she never let me come back to Rwanda.”
I tell him he’ll die before he reaches thirty. He says that he only needs to do this for four or five more years to establish himself and then he will stop. He wants to be able to travel all over the world and he is starting to be more receptive to his mother’s demands for him to settle down and start a family.
Life isn’t easy, but Rwanda is moving at such a fast-pace right now that many businessmen like Alex are taking advantage of the many opportunities for investment. Rwanda is becoming more and more of a melting pot as investors pour in from all over the world, especially China, to help with the burgeoning economy and thriving infrastructure. In addition, since Rwanda is now part of the East African Community, investors from Kenya, DRC, Uganda, and Tanzania are increasing their presence in high-paying positions and starting their own businesses in Rwanda.
This, of course, has implications for many Rwandans, who are already struggling with the low employment rate and now have to compete with foreigners who are often more experienced and come from cultures that lay a greater emphasis on innovation and a stronger work ethic.
However, as Rwanda strives to invest in human capital through educating new generations of critical thinkers, Alex is an example of how all it takes is one delicious melt-in-your-mouth croissant to start a successful business.
12/22/2010 – Per the request of one astute commenter, I have tried to do some research to back up what I’ve been told by local Rwandans. I will add links and cite scholarly research as I go! Hopefully, this will shed additional light on economic freedom in Rwanda.
http://www.heritage.org/Index/Country/Rwanda – This page analyzes and evaluates economic freedom in Rwanda, breaking down the information into specific categories.
http://www.globalpropertyguide.com/Africa/Rwanda/economic-freedom/a – Another economic freedom rating based off of the same study by The Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal. Rwanda is ranked as “Mostly Unfree.”
http://index-of-economic-freedom.findthebest.com/directory/d/Rwanda – Index of Economic Freedom. Rwandan’s overall score: 59.1. Business freedom (ability to start, operate and close a business) is 74.5. BUT Property Rights is 30, Financial Freedom is 40, and Freedom from Corruption is 30.