No sting in the tail for sisal-growing cooperative

While other people are cursing their way to work through traffic jams, Jean Luc Ngarambe takes a leisurely stroll through his tree nursery beds to look after many varieties of seedlings they contain. Not only is the start of his day much more relaxed than that of people with office jobs, he is also his own boss.

Jean Luc Ngarambe. (photo Eric Didier Karinganire)

Jean Luc Ngarambe. (photo Eric Didier Karinganire)

That started in 2009, when the agronomy graduate from ISAE Busogo had been job-hunting for over a year. Fed up, he started looking at ways to create his own employment. “I began by assessing what I was capable of doing and what I was not, and identifying opportunities and challenges,” Ngarambe explains. “Then I thought of people who could complement my weakness in order to form a strong team.”

And so Horticulture Business Center was born, a cooperative made up by 7 members engaged in horticulture, especially agave sisal, the fibers of which are used in agaseke weaving. Activities on sisal range from seedling multiplication, surface extension, environment protection, handicraft production and research.

Nearly four years later, the 30-year young agronomist can’t complain about the business. “We are now competing for tenders worth millions,” Ngarambe says. “We are really running a flourishing industry.”

Whatever initial doubts the group might have had about the project, they quickly vanished when they landed their first big contract, already in 2009, to remedy the issue of erosion on Mount Kigali by planting sisal. Since then, business has been booming.

Apart from the occasional environmental project, most of the cooperative’s business goes to over 60 cooperatives making agaseke. A single sisal plant yields between 150 and 200 leaves, and 5 leaves are required for one basket; one leaf is sold between Frw 50 and 100. When it comes to planting, one seedling can make them earn up to Frw 400. What makes sisal all the more interesting is that, since it is a type of cactus, it can even grow in poor soil.

For Ngarambe, providing raw materials for handicrafts is just a start. The next step, he says, would be to find ways to transform the fibers into carpet, bags and even rods used in construction. In addition, he is planning a study tour to Morogoro in Tanzania, where sisal is used to produce biofuel.

Horticulture Business Center is also looking beyond sisal, starting activities to set up a palm tree plantation in Ngoma district. They also have plans to do the same in Bukavu and Bujumbura.

The cooperative’s success has also been recognized by others: theirs was among the best business planners in the ongoing Hanga umurimo program, set up by Minicom to support mainly youth and women who have good business ideas but lack financial support.

For Ngarambe, this is not due to luck, but the result of a comprehensive long-term plan. “We did not achieve this in one day,” he says. “It’s the fruit of a process of carefully identifying what you’re capable of and then implementing it. It’s been a step-by-step process.”

For the self-made man, it also shows that even with limited means you can create your own employment, as long as you’re realistic in recognizing your weak and strong sides, and are ready to learn along the way.

“The more you get engaged in business, the more you get experienced,” Ngarambe observes. “You may even fail, but you gain lessons that help you improve.”


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