Launching a Social Enterprise in Rwanda During a Global Pandemic: The Story of Two Fires
Features & Stories | Africa and Middle East | By Christine Wilson
We chatted with our Experience Designer for East Africa, Christine Tucker, about a new initiative she’s undertaking in Rwanda with her business partner, Gadi Habumugisha. This is the story of Two Fires: a social enterprise for Rwandan creatives and the opening of a new photography gallery in Musanze, the country’s gorilla-viewing hub.
When your job is upended by a global pandemic, what do you do?
There’s no wrong answer to that question. Given the tumultuous nature of this year, you’d be perfectly permitted to sit idle and ride out the storm. But as is often the case, our biggest challenges can serve as our greatest inspiration.
This was true for Christine Tucker, our Experience Designer who plans trips to East Africa.
With travel at a standstill and time on her hands, Christine reflected upon a conversation she had just a year prior with Gadi Habumugisha, a Rwandan native who was working at One&Only, our preferred hotel partner in the country’s Musanze region.
Christine had a traveller who wanted to hire a professional photographer to join her for a gorilla trek on her trip to Rwanda. Christine headed to Rwanda for a research trip and to interview some local photographers, including Gadi. The two met for tea to discuss the traveller’s itinerary. But what unfolded was a deeper conversation.
Growing up during the Rwandan genocide
Gadi’s story traces back to the year 2000 when American photographer and producer, David Jiranek, started Through the Eyes of Children, a non-profit aimed at teaching photography to the children of the Imbabazi Orphanage in northwestern Rwanda. Gadi, one of the 19 children at the orphanage, learned about light, colour and composition under Jiranek’s tutelage. Then, with his disposable camera in hand, he ventured into his community to capture the aftermath of the genocide.
Jiranek passed away in 2003, but Gadi and two friends kept his ambition alive by starting the Camera Kids, a project to teach photography to vulnerable children as a means of expressing themselves and viewing their situation from a different perspective.
Gadi shared with Christine his dream of opening a gallery and hosting an exhibition. Through his portrait photography, he hoped to reunite friends and family who were separated during the genocide. Maybe someone would recognize a face they once knew in a headshot, and it could help them reconnect.
A mutual ambition
As for Christine, she always recognized that something was missing in people’s visits to Musanze. Beyond gorilla trekking, she sought another experience to offer travellers—something with a human touch. The option of organized visits to local villages felt invasive and inauthentic, and the money spent on them rarely goes back to the people in the community. In fact, much of Rwanda’s tourism dollars go towards the gorillas, and very little is received by the locals.
Gadi and Christine kept in touch since their first meeting. So when COVID-19 hit and Christine found herself without trips to plan, she called up Gadi and said: “Let’s open your gallery.” Gadi and Christine took it even further and decided to create a social enterprise called Two Fires.
Building a partnership and business
They first looked into creating a non-profit but soon discovered that Rwanda was already oversaturated with them and opted to go the business route instead. There are three arms of the Two Fires initiative. The first is the creative group, a team of four local photographers available for hire. Kigali, the country’s capital, is a massive hub for NGOs and often, international photographers are being flown in for events. Two Fires can encourage conferences to commission local talent instead, as well as be a resource for travellers looking to have a photographer join them on their trip to Rwanda.
Funds from the creative group will go towards the second facet of the business, which is community outreach. Two Fires will continue Gadi’s teaching legacy by hosting sponsored workshops for locals throughout the year in digital storytelling, photography and literacy.
They’ll also sell their services to international schools to further fund the sponsored workshops for local communities. Not only does this provide locals with the opportunity to build their skills and increase their prospects for future work, but could be used as a form of healing—a way to express themselves and share their stories with the world.
The final component is to get Gadi’s photography gallery off the ground. The gallery will be in Muszane and will feature exhibitions and digital storytelling by Rwandan creatives. The first exhibition will feature images from the four photographers of the Two Fires group on the effects of COVID-19 on their country. As a global event affecting us all, travellers who visit Rwanda (which is currently open for travel) can experience the Rwandan perspective. Gadi and Christine have secured space for the gallery, and are eager to get it off the ground in the coming weeks.
In addition to being a space for local artists, it will double as an experience for visitors to gain insights into the people in the community in a respectable way, as well as an uplifting one. While the gravity of the genocide can’t be undermined, guests will get to witness is a resilient population ready to heal and move forward.
The Slow Fund
Butterfield & Robinson is proud to have made a financial contribution to help launch the Two Fires project as a part of our Slow Fund. Whether through educational, cultural or conservation and preservation initiatives, the Fund helps protect various forms of heritage and promotes the health of vibrant living cultures and the eco-systems that support them.
Be sure to check out our Instagram to follow Christine’s upcoming trip to Rwanda to open the gallery with Gadi. And if you’re interested in visiting the Two Fires Gallery to witness the powerful stories conveyed by these talented photographers, get in touch with a member of our team.