Having lived in Rwanda for a couple of years, Jeanetta Craigwell-Graham and Dennis Dybdal had a problem. As people conscious about their health and body, they didn’t find a gym that offered what they were looking for. So they decided to open their own.
The year was 2013, and the idea of Waka Fitness was born. One year later, in March 2014, the fitness club opened its doors in Kimihurua, Kigali.
“We were hoping to give a completely different type of experience that was more than a gym,” Jeanetta says. “We felt that everyone could put some equipment in a room and call it a gym, and we thought that we were doing something that was a bit different.”
“We do a range of things that we think distinguishes this gym, and one of them is the sense of community –we have a strong community of members,” she adds.
What also made Waka stand out from the start is its holistic approach to fitness and wellbeing.
“Some people come and they run on the treadmill for an hour and then they leave. But that doesn’t mean that you’re fit,” Jeanetta explains. “Fitness is a holistic concept – it means being able to run a mile but it also means that you should be able to lift some weights, to have good mobility in your muscles, to be injury-free, and that your overall body condition is not under stress. That’s what we’re aiming at here.”
“There’s a lot involved in our business, there are so many different aspects of health. We do diet plans for people, we talk a lot about food which is more important than anything,” she adds.
The concept struck, and last Friday Waka Fitness celebrated its third anniversary. In good Waka tradition, it involved a competition in throwing around heavy truck tires, but also delicious smoothies and cake.
“This event is to celebrate our third anniversary, but also to thank our members, the people that helped us get to this point, and to show them that we really appreciate their loyalty and sharing our vision,” Jeanetta says.
To get where they are today, Jeanetta, who comes from the United States, and Dennis, from Denmark, had to learn a lot about the local market. In the first place about prices.
“What you see in Rwanda is either very high-end or very low-end, and there’s not a middle ground. I’m from the US, and you can get a really good gym that’s not expensive. So that’s what we wanted to provide,” Jeanetta explains. “We had to learn that and adjust our price point and adapt some of the amenities for the market here.”
“The other thing is understanding the preferences of our clients; understanding the different types of services Rwandans want has been a learning curve,” she says.
There’s also the issue of food which, as mentioned earlier, is central to Waka’s vision of fitness.
“Changing people’s minds about nutrition has also been a learning curve. It has been surprising how much myths people have around food or exercising in Rwanda, and we’re basically learning how to give people more knowledge about health and fitness. It’s been a good journey,” Jeanetta remarks.
That journey has far from ended, she points out.
“When we started Waka, we didn’t want to have one gym, we actually wanted to be Africa’s first independent gym chain,” she explains. “So we started it here and we are in discussions to set up another gym in Kigali before the end of the year. And then we go outside of Rwanda, in East Africa, and maybe West or Southern Africa – wherever it makes sense to go next. So that’s like a 10-year business plan to achieve, to grow pretty aggressively and rapidly.”
“We see that health and fitness is something that more people on the continent are starting to pay attention to – they are working harder, making more money, but also eating more poorly and having more stress,” Jeanetta says. “Health is something very important and priceless, and I think people are willing for an experience like Waka’s that helps them to get healthy and help them feel better more than just walking on a treadmill – anyone can walk on a treadmill.”
And it doesn’t end with just opening more branches, whether in Rwanda or abroad.
“We want to focus on more specialised fitness experiences. When we open another branch, it would be interesting to have more cross-fit type classes, or building a powerlifting community – we want to build communities for people that are interested in specialised fitness experiences because there are so many interesting trends and ways of working out.”
“And we want to expand into other aspects like food, maybe opening a juice bar,” Jeanetta adds. “I think the sky’s the limit because we’re trying to distinguish ourselves more like a lifestyle brand. We can talk about food, we can talk about workplace environment, how to make a company healthier.”
With Waka, the sky, and holistic fitness, is the limit indeed.