Some people might see losing their international development aid job due to civil unrest as a setback, but not Consolata Ndayishimiye. For this optimist, it presented opportunity. Seeing the suffering in her native Burundi − a land-locked nation ravaged by civil war sanctions − and driven by her mother’s example of hard work and commitment to success, Consolata took her USAID severance pay and founded La Belle Maison. The small interior decoration shop was the first in a string of businesses that today create economic activity and help women and underserved populations in Burundi change their lives for the better. “I decided to survive and help others live by creating employment,”the mother-of-five says simply.
Founded in 1998 with just four employees and funding from her final cheque as a financial officer for the US Development Aid Agency, La Belle Maison or “The Beautiful House”, has grown despite the challenges of civil war, economic turmoil, and local distrust of business. The interior design firm recently opened a big showroom. Consolata’s company also owns and rents out both residential buildings and launched Barbecue, a restaurant specializing in Burundi’s famous grilled meats that is frequented by expats seeking good food in Bujumbura. Since 2014, the restaurant has been expanded to offer accommodation. Another asset is Kahawa Link Company (Kalico), a social enterprise she co-founded with a fellow entrepreneur, which supports rural women farmers in becoming coffee farmers. With over 40 permanent employees and 100 seasonal employees, Kalico supervises all stages of the coffee-producing process and gets Burundi’s coffee into international markets. Consolata also owns her own ‘Izere (Hope) speciality coffee’ a premium roasted coffee that she recently introduced to the market. “It’s important that everyone understands that the private sector is really the engine of development, that this is not just a slogan,” Consolata explains.
Consolata’s accomplishments don’t end with founding multiple successful businesses. She’s an economic powerhouse who’s been described by Patricia Moller, previous US Ambassador to Burundi, as a “force of nature.” With Moller’s backing, she made a bid for the presidency of the Federal Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Burundi and won, becoming the first woman to hold that position. She also served as the President of the East African Business Council (EACB), where one of her best moments was “signing a US$1,000,000 business partnership between the EACB and Trademark East Africa. “That,” she recalls with a smile, “was a good day.”
Consolata attributes her entrance into the male-dominated realms of the Chamber of Commerce and EABC to both Moller’s backing and mentoring from Katherine Ichoya, the Director of the Federation of National Associations of Women in Business in Eastern and Southern Africa (FEMCOM). Ichoya also encouraged Consolata to found the Women’s Initiative for Self-service Empowerment (WISE), a local microfinance organization for women, which the 54-year-old considers her greatest achievement: “If I died tonight, I would depart this earth proud of having brought together 461 women to start such a symbolic and encouraging social enterprise.”Her inspiration for hard work she credits to her mother who rose at 3:00 am every day to cross the border and sell clothing in the Congo. Even former US President Obama touched her: “The ‘Yes We Can’ campaign encouraged me to turn my dreams into reality,” she says.
With her multiple business ventures, Consolata makes it look easy, but the risks are real:
“In an underdeveloped country like Burundi, only just emerging from a long drawn-out civil war, people don’t trust business owners and the market is very unstable.”
Consolata has managed the risk by diversifying her businesses and even taking on employment during difficult periods to repay debt.
Doing business in Burundi may seem like a hazardous, even reckless idea. But for a woman, it’s even more difficult as a result of barriers like little-to-no-access to bank loans due to inheritance laws and sociocultural prejudices. But despite these hindrances, Consolata continues to take a cheerful view of life and her country’s future. “I can’t judge those who left the country because of its troubles, but we can’t all leave. I am personally convinced that this country needs me, whatever may happen,” she says, adding with a wink, “Besides, starting from zero somewhere else terrifies me.”
Seek advice and encouragement, even from other’s actions, successes, or failures.
GO OUT ON A LIMB
Don’t be afraid
to take risks
even when you have
to delay payments.
Don’t rely on just
one activity to see
you through the
Find a partner to balance the workload and share the risk to achieve sustainable success
Consolata Ndayishimiye ‘s story first appeared in Women Creating Wealth, A Collection of Stories of Women Entrepreneurs from across Africa. You order or download a copy here.