We speak to Umugiraneza Regis, CEO of CARL Group, a Rwandan company that processes sweet potatoes to produce bread and biscuits under the Vita brand.

Regis and his staff kneading dough to make bread

1. How did you come up with the idea to start Carl Group?

The idea began in 2014, in my fourth year of studying agriculture, economics and agribusiness at the University of Rwanda. My dissertation was about sweet potatoes in Rwanda and sub-Saharan Africa. I realised we could add value to this crop. Everyone was growing sweet potatoes in the rural areas and eating them boiled, the same way they had been preparing them for decades.

Rwanda often experiences a surplus of sweet potatoes. Yet, while the population in Rwanda’s urban areas is increasing as people move into the cities, they don’t enjoy sweet potatoes because of the traditional way it was prepared.

I met with colleagues (we attended the same high school) and we discussed business opportunities. I shared my idea of adding value to sweet potatoes and we agreed to start a company.

2. Give us an overview of your product range.

We are currently making sweet potato bread. We also produce biscuits made from sweet potatoes. We use orange-fleshed sweet potatoes that have a high vitamin content, particularly vitamin A.

3. Who is your target market?

For the bread, it is middle-income people. The biscuits are for the rural communities, those with a low income.

4. Where do you source the sweet potatoes?

We work with more than 1,000 farmers across the country. Sweet potato is widely cultivated throughout Rwanda. The number of farmers we work with grows as the demand for our products increases. We sign long-term contracts directly with them and most are five-year contracts.

5. Explain your production process.

Our production line is 90% automated. Once the sweet potatoes get to the factory, we do primary washing which removes the soil. We have a machine that can wash and peel the sweet potatoes at the same time. It removes just a little of the skin and then we boil it. We make mash or puree and mix this with other ingredients to make the bread and biscuits. We then package and distribute to different supermarkets.

A loaf of Vita sweet potato bread.

6. Where do you sell your products?

We are currently distributing to more than 35 middle-class supermarkets. We are also planning to work with the National Child Development Agency to supply our nutritious products to schools.

7. How competitive is the market?

The market is very competitive as we have some big-name bakeries here that produce the bread.

8. Which is your most successful form of marketing?

Social media, mostly Twitter, is our primary form of marketing but we are soon going to do radio advertising.

9. Tell us about some of the biggest challenges in your industry.

The biggest challenge is to persuade people to buy a new product but we are trying to convince them through the government. Sweet potato is not considered a priority crop in Rwanda but because we can show the government how committed we are and how we are adding value to the community, they are changing their mindset and supporting us through exposure. We are also using third parties to convince people to trust our product; for example, we have received certification from the Rwanda Standards Board.

Packaged Vita bread

10. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.

Initially, we used traditional methods to make bread in an outdated oven. We were unable to regulate the temperature and we would proof the bread using sunshine. The end product would vary from day to day; sometimes it was well cooked, other times it was not. We paused the business in 2017 to restructure as we were losing our market share. We designed the business plan, sourced the proper equipment and went to the financial institutions to obtain funding. Finally, we got it right.

11. Identify an untapped business opportunity in Rwanda.

Rwanda is a developing country, so we are still importing a lot of things. There is a gap in the market for local foodstuffs; for example, almost 100% of the wheat we are using is imported. In addition, there is demand for items such as candy, chocolate and confectionery that are currently also imported.

Rwandan company making bread and biscuits from sweet potatoes

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