Blog 18

African SMEs in the COVID-19 crisis? An inside story from Rwanda

Everywhere in the world, small businesses are being affected by COVID-19. And everywhere, there are concerns about access to nutritious foods. So what is happening to the small businesses actually providing nutritious foods to lower income consumers. In Blog 18 in our series on opportunities for building back better food systems and nutrition, we hear first hand from someone who should know: the Acting Managing Director of a small business in Rwanda that provides nutritious beans. Here, Marie Claire Nyirankundizanye provides a compelling account of what the on-the-ground challenges really are, what she has had to do to ensure her business keeps functioning and the relatively minimal support that would provide so much difference to her businesses ability to get nutritious foods to people who need them. In the telling, Marie Claire reveals the vital role of a positive mindset in enabling her to rise to the challenge. Read her story below.

-- Corinna Hawkes

Marie Claire Nyirankundizanye is a Rwandan. She is a wife, and a mother of one child.  And she’s also employed as Acting Managing Director and production manager at FarmFresh Food Company Limited, a company that since 2015  produces and sells cooked pre-packaged beans to individuals, retails shops, and institutions in Kigali city, Huye, Ruhango, and Nyanza districts. FarmFresh outsources both biofortified high iron and mixed varities of beans from farmer cooperatives across the country. To achieve their target, the company employees 15 staff (7 permanent and 8 casual) who worked hard to serve 1,673 people in 2019. This pandemic has struck when FarmFresh was planning to increase the production by ten times to meet the needs of schools, and export markets in Tanzania, Kenya, Singapore and Europe.  

Overnight, COVID-19 has forced Marie Claire to change her way of doing business. Her experience is revealing about the challenges these small businesses face in ensuring a supply of nutritious foods to poor people. Its also revealing about the mindset needed to face these challenges.  Here is her story:


"At FarmFresh, we’ve tried to remain optimistic.  While other businesses have closed, we remain open, because we believe that the crisis might actually open new market opportunities, and we’re keen to use this as a time to find new solutions.  Our sales have remained stable over the past few weeks [when the nationwide ‘lockdown’ in Rwanda began] but we do sense a degree of flux and volatility in the markets.

But we are facing challenges.  We typically sell our products across the region, and not only in Rwanda, yet there are several restrictions imposed at the border. Trade within Rwanda is also restricted. Schools purchase a large quantity of our production and these schools have closed.

We are therefore exploring other market opportunities.  We’re focusing our marketing and distribution on Kigali only. And we’re sending more of our products to supermarkets and to distributors who sell through online portals.


Distribution does remain a challenge: we are struggling to find reliable and safe transportation to make deliveries, and with so much of the country locked down, it’s difficult to source the inputs we need to keep production moving.  We also need to make sure our staff stay safe when moving to and from the factory, and the current restrictions mean that we have to apply for permits to ensure staff are allowed to move between their homes and the production facility.

Additional support would help. A pickup truck would enable us to deliver finished goods to our customers and  safely transport our employees from home to work and back.  If we could source working capital, we’d hire more staff and run our facility round the clock.  We would also invest some working capital in the purchase of more high-iron beans [beans that have been bred to improve the amount of iron they contain].  FarmFresh’s line of high-iron beans has become popular with consumers, who appreciate their higher nutrient content as well as the convenience of this pre-cooked product—ready to heat and serve.

On one hand we know that times are tough. We know that many of our customers are struggling and we know that some will not be able to pay us in full for products that we’ve produced and that they’ve sold.  On the other hand, we believe in our product and our business, and we believe that our product provides nutritious and convenient food for our customers, while also reducing the fuel consumption need to cook beans.  So as long as we’re selling a product that adds value for our customers, we think we’ll be okay—whether in good times or bad.  Anyway, this is a global crisis, and we’ve got to get through it together.”


About the author

Aimé Kwizera is Project Manager for Marketplace for Nutritious Foods at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) in Rwanda. He has 7 years of experience in management of projects in agriculture economics and agribusiness, nutrition and food security. Prior to joining GAIN, he has worked for local and international organisations such as Eastern Africa Grain Council (EAGC) and StratDever Ltd.


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