She walked out of the ward to deliver her own universityBy RAY NALUYAGA | Tuesday, July 24 2012 at 13:58
Madam Zulfat Mukarubega , 52, is no ordinary woman: educated as a nurse, her quest to fight poverty has made her the owner of arguably the only tourism university in East Africa.
Married at the age of 20, she could not stand the levels of poverty her family was forced to endure. With just $10, she decided to start an eatery in 1979.
Speaking from her posh office in Kigali during an interview with Africa Survival Series, Madam Zulfat as she is commonly known in the capital, says the money gleaned was not enough to buy everything she needed.
“I asked neighbours to give me the furniture they did not need and was able to get four tables and eight chairs free of charge,” she says.
Armed with $10, she went to the market and bought sugar, milk, tea, and bread in preparation to serve breakfast.
With rent not requested in advance after negotiating with the landlord, Madam Zulfat would run back to the market to buy merchandise for lunch with the money she made from the sale of breakfast.
“Business was so good to the extent that in a year’s time four new eateries sprung up around my business, I decided to change,” she says.
From the same premises she opened a boutique because the area did not have one.
She displayed her goods differently from other boutiques, including decorating it with different flowers.
“This coupled with customer care and product knowledge which I used to educate my customers about what they were about to buy, made my business grow very fast,” she says.
According to her, she did not fear directing a customer to another boutique where she thought they could get what they wanted.
Madam Zulfat says this built strong confidence with her customers with others changing their minds and buy what she stocked instead of going to another boutique.
Due to high turnover, wholesalers were ready to give her an another half on credit to any amount of goods she bought.
She told Africa Survival Series that the trust she was able to build with suppliers created a strong capital base for her business.
She always paid the debt in time, and in circumstances where she could foresee that she would not meet the deadline, she would go to the creditor and ask for a new date.
In 1983 her husband bought an old car which she says broke down after every five kilometres.
“This made garages almost our second home, where I discovered that most of mechanics there were foreigners, this made me think of opening a mechanics school,” she says.
When asked whether she had money for it, Madam Zulfat was quick to respond: “I do not think of an idea because I have money, I get an idea because I saw a problem which needs a solution, the money aspect comes later” she says.
She started a mechanics college in 1983 by drawing teachers from DR Congo, Uganda and few from Rwanda.
The college was registered in 1987 and by that time it had 850 students and 22 teachers.
At this juncture aged 38 and with two children she decided to go back to school and study accounting because she felt she was not well equipped to handle the business.
“Everybody looked at me and wondered why I would go back to school at the time when I owned what appeared to be a successful business,” she says.
A mother of two, she would go to work at the college and go to school later on.
Coming back home in the evening, she would prepare dinner for her family and get children to bed after they eat. When everybody was asleep she would start reading and doing her homework.
“During the five years of studying I slept for three hours only, I used to fill a bucket with cold water and immerse my legs there to avoid falling asleep,” she says.
She, like many Rwandese, lost everything she had as a result of the 1994 genocide.
In 1995, her sister’s children who lived outside Rwanda at the time, gave her $100 of which she started a small merchandise business by the road side, selling sugar, flour and the like.
As she proceeded with business, she got the idea of going to Bank of Kigali to ask for a loan. “There I told them my story of how I lost everything during the genocide and they understood,” she says.
Relying on her past record with the bank, she was able to obtain RWF3 million, approximately $5,000.
With the money, she started travelling to Italy and importing clothes, a business she ran for four years between 1995 and 1999.
But in 1999 importation of clothes from Kampala boomed and reduced her profit margins. She decided to change and import furniture from Dubai.
Around 2000, she got divorced.
“For a woman, if you work hard it is a problem and if you don’t work hard it is equally a problem, I have seen it,” she says.
Whenever she travelled outside Rwanda, she saw hotels offered better services than those at home and wondered why not Rwanda?
She decided to make a survey and ask hotel operators what problems they faced and their response was “employees lacked skills in hospitality industry.”
“Many people I spoke to about opening a hotel and tourism school in Rwanda discouraged me, while others said it was a school for houseboys and girls, others asked who I thought I was to do something which the government itself hadn’t done,” she says.
She instead decided to consult people at Kenya’s Utalii College and others in Mauritius and Cape Town.
There she got people who helped her prepare a curriculum and in 2001 she started buying few things for her school.
It was not until 2006 when she got lecturers and started with short courses.
“It was very, very hard to get students, I started with five who unfortunately also refused to pay school fees," she says amid laughter.
But in 2007, the Ministry of Communication was hosting an international tourism conference and was desperately in need of trained waiters and waitresses to provide service to guests.
She pinpoints this as her breakthrough moment. She received 150 students to train for three days.
Because of continued bad service in hotels even after a good number of hotel workers had received training at her school, she decided to conduct a research which revealed that the problem was from untrained managers.
“In 2008 I got an idea of opening a university degree programme for management; from five students who did not pay school fees today we have 3,015 who pay schools fees,” she says.
Madam Zulfat has twice won the Rwanda Development Board Business Excellence Award as the best female entrepreneur in 2010 and 2011.
She also received an honorary doctorate from Kenya's Mt Kenya University in 2008.
Her university has now obtained 10 hectares of land in Robero where construction of the university building has started.
Showing Africa Survival Series drawing plans for the campus, Madam Zulfat says the new place will comprise a university, a hotel, and hostel for students from within and outside the country.
The new premises will also have a cultural centre that will promote Rwandese and East African cultural heritage.
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