“A stable income for 192 chilli farmers in Rwanda”

Students conduct market research for Spices Rwanda

“Spices Rwanda was still brand new, and we were just about to sow our first sustainable chilli pepper seeds when the market plummeted!” Jan Wolthers recalls. Fortunately, he had a great relationship with three Vlerick students. He decided to ask them how Spices Rwanda could still survive as a sustainable business.

Spices Rwanda“All the same, we had done two years of market research in Uganda and Rwanda before we decided to invest in Spices Rwanda with the Inclusive Trading Group,” says the project initiator, Jan Wolthers. “I had already spent ten years introducing young Africans to agriculture, so African agriculture was familiar territory. What is more, Spices Rwanda was specifically going to grow the hot bird’s eye chillies.”

Reliable project with impact

Then he came across a question posted by three Vlerick students on a LinkedIn group on social development: could someone connect them with a social project that they could get their teeth into as marketing students? “We received a lot of positive responses to our project question,” recalls Emmeline Demaerschalk. “Spices Rwanda looked like a reliable project that would enable us to have a real impact. What is more, we immediately hit it off with Jan.”

Recommendations in a complex market

The students conducted interviews with farmers, traders, and processors to map out the chilli market, with all its lack of transparency. Laurence De Schrijver: “The market for the extremely spicy bird’s eye chillies is not located primarily in Rwanda as is often thought. To understand the whole process, we had to go to Rwanda ourselves. If Spices Rwanda wants to expand its sales market, it will also have to differentiate and, for example, introduce a chilli sauce or cooperate with existing producers. For example, we established a partnership with a Rwandan chilli oil producer. To ensure that this and other partnerships would have a high chance of succeeding, we also started researching the best practices of other oil and sauce producers.”

In-company project at Spices Rwanda
From left to right: Nicolas Moreau, Emmeline Demaerschalk and Laurence De Schrijver

“15% new insights”

Those recommendations were not entirely new to Jan. “85% of their market analysis confirmed what I already knew. But 15% was genuinely new information. The students identified new Rwandan players, and we have now taken the first steps towards a partnership with a chilli oil producer.”

Cultural challenge

The three students spent a month in Rwanda for their in-company project. “It turned out to be a fascinating experience for all of us, not only in terms of content but also in human terms,” recalls Nicolas Moreau. “We ended up in a fairly closed, fragile society where communication is mainly indirect. Spices Rwanda does not want to make the greatest possible profits, but rather to give farming families a stable income and teach them how to handle money. In this way, they can save up a little and, in the long run, ensure that their children will have greater opportunities for the future. Thanks to Ben, one of Spices Rwanda’s local employees, we managed to gather enough information from the local population. What is more, we have now harvested the first chillies. They are keeping us informed about their progress!”

“Local farmers learn to think like entrepreneurs”

Spices Rwanda is one of three initiatives by the Inclusive Trading Group, an initiative that Jan Wolthers wants to use to support entrepreneurship among the local African population. Jan Wolthers: “The Inclusive Trading Group aims to give farmers the responsibility for their results. Over a ten-year period, we support them in putting a good product onto the market and helping them to learn to think like entrepreneurs. One third of the proceeds go to the business, one third to the local farmers, and one third to the investor. The intention is that, after ten years, a farmers’ cooperative should be able to buy us out.” 

In-company projects

Are you a social entrepreneur with a strategic issue but neither the time nor the resources to address it? Could you use some extra management insights from our MBA or Masters students? Contact our in-company coordinator Kimberly Pauwels via [email protected].

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