Community, Diaspora and Immigration

Strength of a woman: She walked out of the ward to deliver own university

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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 level of poverty her family was forced to endure. With just $10,(Shs23,000), 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 in her customers with others changing their minds and buying what she stocked instead of going to another boutique.

Due to high turnover, wholesalers were ready to give her another half on credit to any amount of goods she bought.

Capital base
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 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 a 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.

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