Rwanda is called the land of a thousand hills. Its lowest point is still some 3,000 feet above sea level, and the volcanic Virunga mountain range in the country’s northwest region eventually tapers into rolling savannah and plains toward the east. Just a few degrees below the equator, the country’s climate is stable and warm, with daily highs around 80 degrees year-round. A third of the world’s gorilla population lives in Rwanda. It is a beautiful country with a hole in its heart.
In 1994, as a result of ethnic genocide, more than 500,000 Rwandans were killed in the blink of 100 days. Refugees fled while those who remained—mostly women and children—were left with a broken country and crushing grief. The economy ceased to function. More than 20 years later, much has changed as President Paul Kagame modernizes Rwanda’s economy, elevates women’s rights and takes a hard line against corruption.
Josephine “Fina” Uwineza was a Rwandan refugee from an earlier civil war in 1973 that killed her father. She has lived in Burundi, Kenya, Geneva and Canada since fleeing her native country when she was just nine years old, but her “whole spirit” stayed in Rwanda. After the 1994 conflict ended, she wanted to return to the country to be a leader in its rebuilding. She plans to do it through beer.
She came back to Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali, with her husband and children in 1998 and opened the country’s first Chinese restaurant, Flamingo Restaurant, in 2000. She ran it for 13 years.
After the restaurant closed, Uwineza met Nancy Coldham, a Canadian consultant who was mentoring female entrepreneurs and working on redevelopment in Rwanda. Coldham wanted to help more Rwandan women access capital in industries like manufacturing, and she had the seed of an idea for Rwanda’s first craft brewery, run by a woman. “I needed someone who understands the hospitality sector, tourism, hiring and firing—and that was Josephine,” she says.
Coldham approached the Ontario Craft Brewers Association seeking a craft brewery partner, and Beau’s All Natural Brewing CEO Steve Beauchesne answered her invitation to advise the Rwandan project. She introduced Uwineza to the team at Beau’s in Vankleek Hill, Ontario, who had volunteered to offer logistical guidance and technical assistance to the nascent Rwandan brewery project. Momentum built quickly. Uwineza enjoys beer (“in a moderate way,” she says) but her real interest in opening a brewery is motivated by the lack of a Rwandan beer scene and by a brewery’s opportunity to employ women in both production and growing of raw materials.
“In our [Rwandan] magazines, I’m on the cover page. Everyone is talking about it; people are calling me and congratulating me. Others are asking me about jobs before we even start,” Uwineza says. “When I entered this venture, I was interested in it mostly because of the impact on employees, on women. Right now, our government and parliament and cabinet have more than 50 percent women. But still, we cannot deny that women are behind in so many ways, especially in rural areas. If I can employ women in growing the raw materials, I know it will have a big impact not just on those women but on families.”
When you hire a woman or educate a woman, you educate a whole village.” tweet
After a successful Kickstarter campaign in November 2016 raised more than $80,000 USD for the project, Beauchesne and his team flew to Rwanda this past December to work with Uwineza on the next phase. Beau’s has no ownership stake in the Rwandan brewery, a point Beauchesne says is crucial. He explains, “All of Africa has suffered from colonialization, and us going in to open a brewery so we can profit doesn’t help the Rwandese people. We’re here to help and then we step back. Even a one percent ownership stake would change the dynamics of this project.”
The December visit was energetic, focusing on practical steps for the brewery: scouting building locations, meeting with a banana-growing co-op that might supply some of the brewery’s raw materials, learning Rwandan homebrewers’ process for traditional banana- and sorghum-based brewing. But each night, Beauchesne and his team returned to their lodging at Hotel des Milles Collines, the setting for the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” “It cemented what happened here,” Beauchesne says.
The way Uwineza, Beauchesne and Coldham describe the brewery-in-planning imbues it with a purpose beyond just making beer. “As Rwandans try to emerge from the stench of colonialism and define themselves, how better than to have a national beer?” Coldham says. “Imagine Rwandans being able to raise a glass of their first Rwandan beer ever and cheer to their own independence.”
Currently, the country doesn’t have a brewery to truly call its own. The two main breweries that operate in Rwanda now, SKOL and Bralirwa, are owned in majority by foreign companies, the latter by Heineken. Their lagers are ubiquitous in the country’s pubs and are what most drinkers there associate with beer. But Rwanda does have a history of traditional homebrewed sorghum- and banana-based beverages (the Kinyarwanda word for the finished, fermented liquid translates to both beer and wine). To make the banana beer, bananas are buried underground for five days, then removed, peeled and spread into a long, hollowed-out log where they’re pressed down by hand with cut grass until they become a liquid. The liquid is then boiled; afterwards, sorghum is added to the liquid and the mixture is transferred to a clay pot. After a few days in the pot, it’s fermented to a sweet, strong, nearly rum-tasting beverage that’s consumed through straws straight from the pot. The sorghum beer, by contrast, is less alcoholic, maybe around 3-4% ABV, Beauchesne estimates, and has a noticeable tartness.
He and Uwineza hope to combine these traditions with North American beer styles to create something pleasing to Rwandan drinkers. At a beer tasting with Kigali restaurateurs during Beauchesne’s visit in December, the two most popular beers among a diverse spread were a traditional banana-based brew and, to some surprise, a 10.5% Belgian quad.
“The two things that got people really excited were local flavors and unique flavors, and that’s exactly the promise of craft beer,” Beauchesne says.
Before any beer can roll out the door, though, there are the usual hurdles: securing a location (which, due to Kigali’s strict zoning laws, may require government approval) and hiring and training a brewer, who likely will come either from the Rwandan diaspora community or from a graduating class at the university in Kigali. If all issues are settled smoothly, the brewery could produce its first beers by summer 2018.
The brewery also needs a name. The current front-runner is Kweza, a Kinyarwanda word with two meanings: The first is ‘to ripen’ and the second is ‘to build someone up through compliments.’ It encapsulates the dual beer-making and community- building goals of Uwineza’s dream.
“Someone told me ‘Fina, you must be a very courageous woman. I thought breweries were just for men.’ I want to give confidence to young ladies; there’s nothing you can’t do,” Uwineza says. “Even if I can impact 20, 30, 100 families, that would be an achievement in my life. If you impact a woman here, you impact all of Rwanda and all of Africa. This is global.”