The success story of an expat woman from Kenya to Rwanda

Features
  • Flo
Published on 2021-03-09 at 08:00 by Maria Iotova
Flo, a self-deprecating, determined, and focused woman from Kenya, moved to Rwanda in 2015 due to her partner’s work. Two years later, she founded Kigali Farmers´ and Artisans´ Market, which bridges the gap between MSMEs and consumers, and maximises businesses’ reach through different platforms.

Flo has always been creative and imaginative, but her entrepreneurial journey “fell on my laps,” as she describes. In her first job in Rwanda, she was the head of sales at Kigali Farms, Rwanda’s biggest mushroom growers. After one year in the job, the founder suggested she start her company and become their exclusive distributor. Flo took up the offer “because it felt right and fitting,” but after a year, she closed the company “due to poor business decisions on my part,” she admits laughingly: “Oh how I whined during this period.” 

“After that self-pity phase, I realised that I had gotten a great opportunity to interact with farmers and producers, many of whom used to call me for marketing and business development advice. I noticed there was a need for this service, and in combination with my 15-year long career in food and hospitality sales, I launched KigaliFAAM in 2017.” 

By 2020, Flo was interacting with over 250 MSMEs and was hosting large monthly markets thanks to a partnership with the Kigali Serena Hotel. Due to Covid-19, the physical markets have stopped and KigaliFAAM has gone online, which has brought its own set of challenges with many vendors closing down their business. “I didn’t know how to run an online shop. It has been a steep self-learning curve and an ongoing process. Our website can be better, and I am currently looking for a mentor. My mission is for KigaliFAAM vendors to have a global reach. So, we are starting a Zero Waste shop, called Pima (meaning weight in Swahili), which will promote products locally while the online platform will focus on regional and eventually international level. The growth opportunities are so many that sometimes I have to drop everything I do to steady my overly excited brain and focus on one project at a time, taking each day as it comes.”

Flo sees people’s preconceptions about her nationality and gender being the biggest challenges in starting and running her business in Rwanda. “Being a female entrepreneur is tough. I am resilient, and it doesn’t bother me that much, but it makes parts of the journey longer,” she says. Another clear challenge has been the lack of technological and financial support for MSMEs. “Many companies that offer these services do so with corporates in mind. From the fees they request to the inflexibility in viewing each business as an entity facing its unique challenges,” she explains. 

I ask Flo how has expatriation helped her in her entrepreneurship. “In my opinion, being an expat means that you have freed your mind from the bondage of boundaries — boundaries because of your gender, language, religion, nationality. The world is your home.” But for now, Rwanda is her home, and what she loves the most about it is how peaceful it is. “I love how, at any given time, wherever I am in Kigali, I can find a spot within five minutes to be with myself and my thoughts.”

The biggest cultural barrier Flo had to cross was her position as a woman. “Rural communities are predominantly patriarchal, and I gave up counting the number of times I was directly or indirectly told I have no place in certain discussions. It used to infuriate me, but I created symbiotic relationships with different people to support each other. For instance, if I had to meet with a man or elder who has had issues dealing with women, I would get a man to handle the business. By the time the other party realised I was the brains behind it, they had already seen the partnership’s benefits and wouldn’t complain. It is no longer an issue now because I have realised that the universal language that always works is solving a problem for those you approach.”

To expat women who want to start their business, Flo invites them to find their calling and do a lot of research to back their idea. “Then, start! Don´t wait for validation from anyone. As a red-haired, mohawk-dreadlocked, tattooed female entrepreneur, I don't make it easy on myself, but there will always be someone with an opinion. If you understand that you can not please everyone, you start to appreciate yourself more. I truly believe the more you live your life with intent and purpose, the less you are affected by others. How will you know you are on the right path? You will have a sense of peace doing that work. It will come easy to you, and the fear will actually be a nervous excitement. Enjoy the process of being part of something bigger than yourself.”