“That was a dark period in my life,” said Angelique, reflecting on the late 1990s. She was in high school when the 1994 genocide began, but returned to school as soon as she could to study commerce and accounting. Within a year of graduating, Angelique became the manager of Koakaka. She later moved on to advise 16 coffee cooperatives across Rwanda on issues of management and governance. In 2008, she joined Rwashoscco and worked for six years as their chief accountant, finally becoming managing director last year.
Angelique Karekezi has contributed to that progress as much as anyone in the country. She now serves as the managing director of the Rwanda Smallholder Specialty Coffee Company (Rwashoscco), a federation of six farmer cooperatives, including Koakaka. Last month I traveled to Rwanda to meet with a half dozen of the agricultural businesses that Root Capital finances and celebrate 10 years of investing in the country. While I was there, I had a chance to catch up with Angelique, now 35 and a working mom with four children. She still has the same charming gap between her front teeth and the bubbly laugh that makes her a disarming negotiator and belies the challenges she has endured.
As one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Rwanda has demonstrated the powerful role of entrepreneurship in reconstruction and reconciliation. The country’s annual GDP growth has averaged 8 percent over the past several years, and the percentage of people living in poverty has declined significantly. Within the next five years, Rwanda aims to become what it describes as a “knowledge-based, service-oriented economy with middle-income country status.”
It is an ambitious goal. Despite its success, Rwanda remains a low-income, agriculture-based economy. Away from Kigali’s perfectly paved boulevards and towering office buildings, extreme poverty remains a reality in the rural villages that dot the country’s steep hillsides. An estimated 75 percent of Rwanda’s 12 million people live in rural areas, and a majority of them are subsistence farmers. These hardworking men and women cultivate small plots of land to meet their own food needs and, when possible, sell surpluses to earn income. For them and for their country, most opportunities for a better future originate in the soil.
Last year, Rwanda exported roughly 12,000 metric tons of Arabica coffee. These high-quality, award-winning beans, once unknown, are now enjoyed in cafés around the world, including a Rwandan-owned specialty coffee shop just up the street from my home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The transformation of Rwanda’s coffee sector occurred relatively quickly. Behind all the business plans and balance sheets are incredible people, like Angelique, whose inspiring stories of hard work and determination I’ve witnessed. This is the kind of entrepreneurship that transforms post-conflict economies and helps to unite previously divided nations. To me, this is the story of Rwanda, and it’s one that economic indicators and development statistics cannot convey.
As my plane ascended out of Kigali International Airport, I looked out the window across Lake Kivu to the mountainous peaks of neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is a country that has endured similar struggles but stands in stark contrast to the Rwanda of today. Yet given the transformative effect that entrepreneurship can have on post-conflict recovery and poverty alleviation, I suspect that I’ll soon meet leaders just like Angelique on the hillsides of DRC.