Banana is like the tale about seven blind people and the elephant. To some people, it’s food that enriches their diet. For a farmer, banana presents to them a fodder they feed their animals. For a section of Ugandans, the term banana can mean “waragi” where the regional famous potent spirit Waragi is manufactured from, while in Rwanda they use banana to make a traditional beer called Urwagwa where you can sit with your friends in any social setting, just imbibing the traditional beer.
But for a Gasabo youth banana plant has a whole new meaning. Celse Ngaruye wakes up in the morning to hunt for banana stems which he later uses to make banana lampshades.
After collecting enough banana stems for the day, he chops them into small pieces, packs them in a sack, and makes his way back to his art studio at Niyo Arts Centre in Kacyiru. The banana stems are key raw materials for his enterprise.
Ngaruye says on delivering the raw materials at Niyo, he cuts the stems further into smaller pieces, puts them in a large metallic container, which he then fills with water as he prepares to steam the material on fire.
The chopped banana stem pieces are left to boil in water for 30 minutes or until it boils to his satisfaction. He says after this process, he uses an electric mixer to separate the fibres. Later, when the mixture has cooled down, he uses his hands to break it up. The fibres are spread out for about eight to 12 hours to dry. The process could take two days when the weather is humid, he says.
Ngaruye explains that he extracts the inner fibre of the stem — that soft part which is used for making paper.
“It is this paper that we wrap around a frame we make from wires together with Gitenge, a locally crafted cloth material, to make our final product. Apart from the bulb and sockets, our final product is uniquely Rwandan,” he explains.
“When you are cutting out the shape of the lampshade, ensure that you leave about half an inch at both the top and bottom edges. This is crucial as it will help you stick the edges neatly together on the inside of the frame using glue,” he explains.
He says once you have glued the fabric and paper neatly to the frame, you fasten the narrow piece of ribbon to the edges using glue to give your frame a clean look.
The bulbs are then mounted inside the lampshade. You always have to check whether the final product is working properly by testing it using electricity.
The lampshade stand would already have been wired earlier and has a cable one uses to connect to a power port.
Ngaruye says since he started the enterprise, he has had steady stream of customers, mostly tourists, who are impressed by the unique lampshades made from local products.
“I sell most of these eco-friendly products during the tourism peak periods, from May to November. This is the time, when many tourists flock into the country,” he says.
He says the lampshades he makes during the other months target local clients.
He adds that his other buyers include big hotels around Kigali and individuals who like the ambiance local lampshades create in bedrooms or living rooms.
“I have already started getting bulk orders from key hospitality industry players, like hotels. When they place their orders, they are free to dictate the style of the lampshades. I don’t mind this since I value my clients and their opinions,” says Ngaruye
He notes that what has also endeared him to customers is the fact that buyers are free to choose their favourite colours.
He explains that the lampshades come in different colours, depending on the hue of the paper and ‘ibitenge’ fabrics used. Each lampshade costs between $100 (about Rwf80,000) and $150 (about Rwf120,000), when he sells to tourists, while Rwandans buy them at a bargain price.
The former visual artist says he has now concentrated on making lampshades, abandoning his first love – painting – “because this business is more lucrative.”
“I realised that there’s a lot of competition when it comes to visual art since many youth are into it. But making banana paper lampshades is a new phenomenon in Rwanda…it’s still a virgin field,” he says.
Ngaruye says since his main buyers are tourists, and that “business is low during off season (time when there are few tourists coming into the country)”.
He advises the youth to be creative, particularly experimenting with new ideas, to make it as entrepreneurs.
Ngaruye says he started making banana paper lampshades over a year ago after undergoing intensive training under a Japanese woman, Kumiko Tsuda.
He says when Tsuda visited Uburanga Arts Centre (where he previously worked from) early last year, she was impressed with what the centre was doing and offered to teach the artists how to make lampshades using paper made from banana stems.
Banana lampshade is a very popular product in Japan from where Tsuda comes from and the introduction of this product into the Rwanda market is among the many ways Rwanda is now promoting homegrown products.