To provide a better sense of life and business opportunities for students participating in New York University’s (NYU) “Design for UNICEF” course, we recently traveled to Cankuzo province (one of the most remote and least populated in the country). Here, we were able to interview entrepreneurs in various forms – a successful shop-owner with a large shop, two people operating out of rented stalls, and a child who makes and sells toys.
In a country where only 3% of the population have access to the central electricity grid, affordable, long-lasting energy products remain scarce. Brand penetration is, understandably, low – common products sold in the stalls are phone cards, Fanta, juice, biscuits, tomato paste, washing powder, oil, cigarettes, lighters, flashlights, etc.
Trader, shop owner Godfroid, age 52, 10 children:
“I have had this business since eight years and I sell most of the light products in town. The most popular is to buy a small battery (approximately 19.49 USD) – then you can buy up to 5 extra lights (4.55 USD), like the one I use in my shop, or a phone charger (3.25 USD). It will last for 3 days if you use it 4 hours per night. I also recharge the batteries in my shop (0.65 USD). As I have electricity, there is no need to use solar panels, but other people use them. I used to have many 40 W panels but they have all sold out now. In town, they are used by mainly businesses – shops, banks, etc. But in the collines (hills) people use them in their homes. Solar panels are still somehow seen as something a little bit strange and new but I am convinced that they will become more popular with time.”
“I am a trader. To get my products I travel to Tanzania 6 or 7 times every year to purchase new stock. Most of the products come from China, which can be a problem because they break. Usually when things break I can wait to take them back to my supplier on the next trip.”
The mobile phone charger (3.25 USD), larger battery, that sells for 58.45 USD and last for 3 days (4h/day).
The transformer used to store and charge small appliances from the grid. Also 58.45 USD.
Sample of products in store. If you look closely you will see the sole light hanging from the roof (charged using a smaller battery than pictured at above).
Entrepreneur Anongiate, age 28, 3 children.
“The most popular brands people ask for are phone cards. People also buy juice, biscuits and sometimes water.”
“Getting supplies is easy, I can buy them in town as I need them.” (As discussing procurement – and especially frequency – appeared to be a sensitive subject, we did not press further. The bare shelves suggest business, at present, is difficult.)
“I don’t have any business strategy – my investment is very small. So I just wait for people to come to my shop.”
Entrepreneur Diodonne, age 26, 1 child:
“The brands that are most popular here are, of course, phone cards. Also, a type of homemade soap used for washing clothes, soda (as you can see I have Fanta, Sprite) and tomato paste.”
(Incidentally, the measurement used to sell kerosene is also “1 tomato paste can”, selling for 0.65 USD.)
“You can see I also sell empty water bottles – people buy them (for 0.10 USD) to store water or other things in their homes.”
“My customers change everyday because, as you can see, we are near the road. We don’t have a lot of competition between us. I hope that people will come to shop but if they choose another it is no problem – I respect their choice. I don’t have any specific business strategy – how can I? My capital is very small.”
“I do not own this shop but pay rent of 25 000 (16.24 USD) every month.”
Toy maker Raymond, age unknown.
A great example of local innovation! Unfortunately we were not able to interview him (we were told he has been mute since birth). Other youth in the village, however, told us he began making the cars for personal amusement, and then families began asking him to make them on demand.
“He sells a truck like this for 1000 FBU. He even made a bigger one that he sold. Nobody taught him to make them – I don’t know how he does it.” – male youth, 17.
UNICEF Burundi, Innovations Unit