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November 8, 2019

Regis Umugiraneza, Co-Founder of CARL group

Regis Umugiraneza, a 29-year-old Agribusiness graduate, grew up surrounded by fields of sweet potato. He was four years old when the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi population claimed the lives of his father, sister and many other family members. Since that time, Rwanda has been on a steady path to recovery, and so has Regis. Since launching his business, they have become part of the new generation of young leaders rebuilding the country’s economy.

Before the Genocide, Rwanda’s abundantly growing sweet potato crop was popular. People ate it steamed with a cup of milk at dinner time. Afterwards however, the crops became seen as the food of the rural poor. The upcoming, middle class, city dwellers were no longer interested in consuming it.

During his studies, Regis learned that the orange fleshed sweet potato is nutritious, healthy and rich in vitamin A. Young children and pregnant or lactating women are particularly at risk of vitamin A deficiency and in Rwanda more than 35% of children under 5 still experience malnutrition. The new knowledge peaked Regis’ interest and he wondered whether there could be other ways to cook the versatile vegetable that would appeal to both rural and urban populations.

“I don’t believe that poverty is a lack of wealth but rather a lack of opportunities for someone to bring out the best of them and to grow to their full potential to contribute to the well-being of their families, friends and societies”

He started with spaghetti. However, after receiving entrepreneurship training from SPARK, he conducted market research and found that the demand for pasta was low in Rwanda. So he moved onto doughnuts.

Known as ‘mandazi’, sweet doughnuts were already popular so within 2 months of graduating, Regis and his three fellow students, Clarisse Murekatete, Ada Elyse Irirashenono and Larissa Uwase, had established CARL Group (an acronym of all their names).

The sweet potato doughnuts were a big hit. After giving away samples during local events, the team could hardly keep up with the production. However, even after winning some startup capital during SPARK’s business plan competition, renting a bakery and purchasing small tools, the doughnuts lacked consistency. Regis and his team were ready to make the next step in their business.   

From spaghetti to doughnuts to bread

After acing more business competitions and increasing their funding, the team was able to hire more people, bringing their total employees to 16 full and part-time staff, and started trialling new products using a traditional wooden oven.

With a grant from the Business Development Fund, the team sought the advice of an expert consultant to support their growing business. After just 10 days, CARL Group had a new product for Rwanda’s shelves: Vitabread.

Breaking open a soft, fluffy loaf, still warm from the oven, revealed an orange, naturally-sweet bread. But the novelty ran deeper than the colour. The unique, nutrient-rich bread had no added sugar, low levels of salt and gluten, plus the essential vitamin A.

The orange-coloured novelty gained so much attention that the Ministry of Agriculture came to visit CARL Group’s Kigali bakery and Regis made it into the pages of Rwanda’s national newspaper

The bread, being denser and more nutritious than regular white bread, also has a longer shelf life – 10 days. With its exploding popularity, Vitabread is now available at 25  supermarkets across Rwanda and more than 200 farmers are needed to supply the bakery with enough sweet potatoes! CARL Group soon plans to open more bakeries in the South Province, as well as one in Musanze in the north – areas largely populated by sweet potato farmers.  In the beginning of 2020, CARL Group also plans to launch their next invention: sweet potato biscuits!

Regis has one piece of advice for young entrepreneurs, who tend to prioritise fundraising but can neglect the business idea. He says:

“Be patient, be persistent, make sure your business is valuable, and use your passions and skills”.