Business faculty, students expand Rwanda project through new venture selling handcrafted products

Since 2015, Mercer students and faculty have helped Rwandan entrepreneurs – many of them widows and orphans of the 1994 genocide – improve their businesses and increase their profits during Mercer On Mission trips. A group of women tailors they worked with dreamed of selling their products in America, and now, a team from the School of Business is making that wish come true.

Handbags crafted by the women are now being sold online at agaciro.com, and plans are in the works to sell them in pop-up shops on the Macon campus and local boutiques in the future. One-hundred percent of the profits will go back to the Rwandan entrepreneurs. 

During the Mercer On Mission trip this past summer, six Rwandan women with separate tailoring businesses formed a collective partnership. The Mercer team helped them craft their business and marketing plans and develop their brand, called Agaciro. With competition from a lot of similar businesses in Rwanda, the women needed to find new markets for their products and hoped to eventually sell them in the United States. 

Two Mercer School of Business professors took that idea and incorporated it into their courses, and one semester later, “Project Rwanda” is up and running. Dr. Laura Boman, assistant professor of sports marketing and analytics, focused on the startup side of the business, while Dr. Mark Horn, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship, looked at the long-term aspects of the project. 

“(During Mercer On Mission), we worked with this group of women to help further their business ideas and make their businesses more sustainable,” said Emma Drash, a junior international business, marketing and management triple-major. “I just absolutely loved them, and I loved going on the trip. I wanted to find a way to continue the project. When I heard that classes at Mercer were going to be a part of continuing the project, I hopped on it immediately and knew that I wanted to be as big a part of it as I could.”

Dr. Boman said it’s the story of Rwanda and the entrepreneurs that made her want to pursue this project. 

“That’s what we’re really selling when we sell the products,” she said. “Their families live off the equivalent of a thousand U.S. dollars for a year. It’s not a great life. They’re very smart women, but they’re not educated on how to run their own businesses. When I learned about the mission trips and the impact it had on their lives, I thought this was a great way to extend the impact.”

Six Rwandan women with separate tailoring businesses formed a collective partnership last summer. The Mercer On Mission team helped them develop their brand, called Agaciro, and now, School of Business faculty and students are working to make their products available for purchase online and eventually in some local Georgia boutiques. Pictured are translator Sandrine (left) and Rwandan entrepreneurs Alivera, Alice, Justine, Epephania, Ejeni and Claudine.

Last semester, students in Dr. Boman’s marketing research and strategy yearlong course conducted focus groups, interviews and quantitative studies related to the target audience, products, name, logo and pricing. This semester, they’re building the website, establishing a social media presence, and planning events and pop-up shops on campus to generate interest. The first pop-up shop will be from 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Jan. 26 outside Fresh Food Company in Connell Student Center in Macon.

Dr. Marko Horn’s entrepreneurship students learn how to write business plans, and a group of students last semester volunteered to write the plan for Agaciro. Students will continue to build upon the plan this semester. 

“The idea of the business plan is the bigger picture,” Dr. Horn said. “It becomes a road map to what this project can be in the future. Dr. Boman has the more operational knowledge. What’s the next step? The business plan will become the guidance for that,” Dr. Horn said.

Led by Dr. Horn, five students involved in the project competed in the Next Big Idea Competition in December and won first place and $2,500 in the nonprofit division. Team members included Martha Thompson, Brant Zulauf, Taj Patterson, Aaryanna Mercer and Drash, who also is a project manager for Dr. Bowman’s class along with senior marketing major Jessica Walton. In late February, a team representing the Rwanda project will go to the first Southern Conference Business Plan Competition at the Citadel.

Purses, tote bags, laptop cases, duffel bags and backpacks are some of the Agaciro products that will be sold. The bags feature bright colors and interesting patterns and could be likened to the Vera Bradley brand, Dr. Boman said.

“Our items are really interesting and unique. There’s not going to be any two that are the same. The fabric over there is in limited quantity. They only make one or two items with any given fabric,” she said. “If you purchase one of these products, you’re not only helping these women but you’re getting a unique product that no one else on campus will be carrying around.”

Inventory is limited now, but the business plan will help to eventually take the products outside campus to upscale boutiques and beyond, Dr. Horn said. Associate Professor of Marketing Dr. Etienne Musonera, who is originally from Rwanda and initiated the Mercer On Mission Rwanda program, will bring products back from Rwanda in between semesters initially, but the entrepreneurship class is figuring out best practices for shipping larger quantities, Dr. Boman said.

Students have been busy working on the online and in-person presence of the brand, and the real fun is beginning now as implementation of all the plans begins, said Aaryanna Mercer, a junior management and marketing double-major who took the entrepreneurship class last semester and is now in her second semester of the marketing course.

Drash and Walton developed an inventory system, and Walton established a barcode system to make it easier to track the products, Drash said. In addition, senior marketing major Emma Rose Bailey, who also participated in the 2021 MOM Rwanda trip, has done graphic design work and assisted in building the website — which went live Jan. 18 and will continue to be updated — and establishing brand guidelines on her own time, since she not in Dr. Boman or Dr. Horn’s classes.

The Mercer team is spreading awareness of the brand and the women’s story in any ways that they can.

“You get to buy a bag, have the bag, learn about the story, learn about who made it, and you know your money is going back to them. I think that’s really unique,” said Drash, who is now in the second semester of the marketing class and also taking the entrepreneurship course. “The more people you have knowing about our brand, the more people you have buying, and the more lives you can impact over in Rwanda.”

Dr. Boman said many Mercer students aren’t familiar with the Rwandan genoicide because it happened before they were born. Her students have taken a deep interest in it and are excited about the opportunity to inform others about this chapter of history. The project will be ongoing and constantly evolving, with a new group working on it each year.

“Next semester it’s going to be a whole different group of students,” Mercer said. “We have to make sure we’re communicating, writing everything down, saving everything … Just making sure there’s a strong foundation, so this continues to grow, and it continues to benefit the women, even past when we graduate.” 

This venture is a prime example of experiential learning, as students work on a project that will have an impact, Dr. Boman said. Students gain practical skills by doing actual business tasks, Dr. Horn said. This real-world experience will prepare them for the workforce and set them apart.

“It’s incredible for the students because this is as real as it comes,” Dr. Horn said. “I require my students to write a business plan anyway. If they don’t get connected with projects like this, they’re going to write about yet another restaurant, something that’s never gonna come to fruition. Here, this project is for real, and that’s what makes it attractive for students to work on this because they know they can truly make a difference in people’s lives. If this works as planned and as desired, this is going to be a big operation.”

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