Humble beginnings, big ambitions
Rwandans have for long been accustomed to regional big names in the retail market benefiting from the burgeoning consumer market in the country, but one local supermarket now growing to form the first locally born chain retail brand –Sawa Citi –seems determined to change the narrative.
Established in the later months of 2013 but kicked off serious activities in early 2014, Sawa Citi, a brainchild of Rwandan entrepreneurs who after several years of experience from doing various activities across the world committed to break the dominance of the retail business sector by foreign brands.
What lacked in all local supermarkets was the professionalism that foreign brands offered to customers, the consistence in product and service quality, and the provision of a variety.
To break this deficiency to build an international quality local brand with indigenous knowledge of the needs and demands of the Rwandan buyers, was the target a group of enthusiastic Rwandans who later became the proprietors of the Sawa Citi chain of supermarkets.
As Alex Shyaka the Chairman of Sawa Citi and one of the founders of the supermarket chain explains, the beginning was rather tougher than had been anticipated.
Resonating Sir Isaac Newton’s law of action and reaction, the tough and humble beginnings have attracted an equal magnitude of success in the less than two years the brand has been in the market
“We have reached heights we could not have anticipated in about a year and half. As hard as it was to kick off, so has been the success attained and we envisage more will continue to take shape. For this we have the Rwandan consumers to thank, especially for believing in a new brand and supporting us to where we are today.”
Describing the beginnings, Mr. Shyaka used a real-time situation back then to illustrate the conditions in the start.
“For instance, we could not afford standard shelves to set up the store and had all merchandise arranged on boxes and pallets. This is easily witnessed by the brand’s first choice of name, Sawa Citi Cash & Carry.”
That is some business acumen; turning a deficiency into a success because while the proprietors knew that the reason behind products on pallets and boxes across the warehouse-turned into classy supermarket space to house the first Sawa Citi Supermarket, the buyers only saw an innovation; a supermarket with ample parking space and quick service where they could go, pick what they need and go off to do something else.
Henceforth, it became a condition that Sawa Citi only opens branches in places where customers have enough space to park their cars.
Harnessing the Rwandan culture of hospitality, building a winning team
What made the difference to change the humble beginnings into the big retail brand that Sawa Citi has become was the belief that the founders had in the Rwandan economy, and the team.
In 2013 as Sawa Citi kicked off operations, there were only 12 employees to man the duties and as Shyaka explains, many among them were people they could not financially afford but had only convinced and sold to them the Sawa Citi dream which they luckily bought.
By pulling various skills and expertise together, the young, vibrant and dynamic team begun to make leaps into the retail business market and managed to attract more buyers in just a short while.
From just 12 members of staff, the Sawa Citi team has grown to over 100 in just less than two years and given the ambitious growth plans, more jobs as anticipated will be created in the near future.
Growing from just one main outlet fitted with boxes and pallets for shelves, Sawa Citi now counts two main supermarkets and six express shops across Kigali City.
But this as the ambitious and largely young team explains is just a beginning. They have set the service standard bar high and are looking to maintain that to propel the brand’s growth.
Sawa Citi targets to at least have three more main supermarkets and 8 extra express shorts opened over the next three years.
This implies that by the year 2018, the target is for the Sawa Citi brand of retail shops to have at least 19 branches in Rwanda.
While the supermarket has concentrated its activities in Kigali City over the last one and half years, they are already looking beyond the capital into other secondary cities and urban centres.
“Our goal in to modernize neighborhood shopping from the poorly serviced informal retail shops to modern grocery stores that can offer timely, quality services and a variety of commodities to Rwandans,” Ms. Belinda Bwiza the General Manager of Sawa Citi shared in a recent interview.
For Shyaka, the team believes that these kinds of formal grocery stores should span Rwanda and reach at least 700 Sawa Citi branded shops by the year 2020.
“By increasing the Sawa Citi brand in Rwanda’s retail market, we will not only have solved the access to quality shopping experience for all Rwandans but also will have turned a largely informal business sector into a formal one that will go on to contribute to the economy,” argues Shyaka.
Important to mention however is that these ambitions and the achievements made so far will and have been attained on the trust of other local and international partners who saw potential in Sawa Citi.
Among others, South Africa’s Engen which is one of the leading retail companies on the continent the captain of oil distribution in Africa has already partnered with Sawa Citi through its Rwandan subsidiary.
This partnership which first focused on Kigali has seen six express shops of Sawa’s open at Engen refill station around the Rwandan capital.
The partnership with this otherwise young brand was described by Engen Rwanda’s Managing Director Sarah Doukoure in a recent interview as one driven by the similarity in the values that both entities stand for.
“Our brands, Engen and Sawa Citi, share similar values and aspirations of customer satisfaction, and of offering unique services and products which in a way ties us together so easily since we each target almost the same thing, though with different products.”
Another such company that has partnered with Sawa Citi and added value to the supermarket’s quality offering is BROOD, a Dutch bakery whose offerings Sawa franchises in Rwanda.
It is this partnership with BROOD that makes it possible for Rwandan consumers to have access to the fresh, high quality bread that have become characteristic of the Sawa Citi brand in the country.
In addition to offering job opportunities to hundreds directly and indirectly, Sawa Citi has in the last two years significantly impacted the food chain in Rwanda especially by providing local market for local produce and sharing expertise in retail products’ packaging.
One such impact has been on local farmers and small agro-processing industries that have benefited from the market the supermarket chain presents.
Unlike many global chain supermarkets operating in Rwanda, Sawa Citi has local knowledge of the capacity of agro processors and is more welcoming to their challenges and accommodating of their shortfalls.
“Many of them have high quality products but lack good representation as a result of substandard packages. By understanding this and aiming at supporting each other to benefit from the booming retail market, we agreed that we would work together with such producers; repackage their products and advise them on how to improve them in some cases,” Shyaka explained.
The contents of the products are normally of the highest quality possible, but the challenge is normally to have these high quality products in appealing packaging.
Thus while they strengthen their skills and facilities to improve their product’s packaging, Sawa Citi is also supporting to in the meantime have these high quality produces compete on the market.
To those with high quality produce, the chain supermarket offers a market, and invests in repackaging the final good.
“It is a long journey that Rwandan producers have to travel before they can attain quality representation of their products. But we understand their challenges and share their dream as fellow Rwandans; something only a Rwandan brand can offer.”
With the branch network growing steadily, Sawa Citi is also looking to venture into the chain of production for food processing sector, so as to increase the availability of Rwandan products on both the local and international markets.
As Shyaka explains, the local supermarket brand is focused on the packaging and marketing sections of the production process, in efforts to offer aid where it is most needed.
“With our knowledge about consumer needs of what is appealing to their tastes, we stand better chances of facilitating the proper packaging of products.”
He explains that it has been their experience that Rwandan products are of a higher quality standard largely organic and with a high nutritional value but the challenge is in how they are presented; the packages.
On the onset, eyes are fixed on proper packaging of fresh produce of vegetables and fruits, to make them available in an appealing manner for customers. This is expected will also add more value to the produces and offer a better market option for farmers to make better returns.
A new portfolio is in the making; Sawa Fresh, which will include all fresh produces, packed in appealing packages and made available locally.
Once a strong base has been satisfactorily created locally, the Sawa Citi brand is also looking at expanding beyond Rwandan borders to neighboring states; taking the Rwandan values of hospitality to the rest of the region and Africa in the long run.
“We have the potential, there is a strong political support for the private sector, security is almost faultless giving us space to think and innovate. I believe every Rwandan business can achieve its dreams now than ever before,” Shyaka enthused.
Sawa Citi outlets (locations)
Sawa Main stores at;
- Avenue des Poids Lourds in Kiyovu
- Remera near Kisimenti (former land center building)
Sawa Express shops located at Engen petrol stations in;
- Freezone 12,
- And in Kimironko opposite the main gate to the bus park