Four years ago, I led a group of graduate students from the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya on a two-week service and learning trip to Rwanda. The service and learning trip provided IDC students with the opportunity to participate in a symposium with graduate students from the (then) National University of Rwanda’s Center for Conflict Management, tour the country, and participate in volunteer activities that benefited survivors of the Rwandan genocide. The trip was coordinated in collaboration with Discover Rwanda, an Aegis Trust social enterprise project that brings international students to Rwanda to learn about the 1994 genocide and the country’s post-genocide reconstruction and rehabilitation. We toured the country, visiting genocide memorials, cultural attractions, museums, government ministries, and the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village. Given the small size of Rwanda (smaller than the state of Maryland), our home base was the Discover Rwanda Youth Hostel, the first of its kind in Rwanda. Located in Kigali, the country’s capital, the hostel had opened just a few months before our arrival and was still in the early stages of development.
As far as hostels go, it was a straightforward experience – clean dormitory-style rooms, basic amenities, buffet-style meals, wifi, and a warm and relaxed atmosphere. But this is no ordinary hostel. Our stay provided an unexpected lesson on the main tenets of social entrepreneurship. Another Aegis Trust social enterprise project, the Discover Rwanda Youth Hostel is a non-profit venture; all proceeds go to support the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center and initiatives to benefit survivors of the Rwandan genocide.
I had high hopes for the hostel after enjoying an extended eight-week stay. But social entrepreneurship projects are often mismanaged, run with good intentions rather than strong business acumen. When I returned in 2011 and 2012, promising changes laid my concerns to rest; improvements had been made to the garden and outdoor veranda overlooking the hills of Kigali, the bar options had expanded, and the hostel was at capacity. It appeared that the hostel was a success.
But I was completely unprepared for what greeted me this January. After major renovations and a new addition, the hostel now boasts 60 beds, including private rooms with balconies and bathrooms. A third floor veranda offers stunning views above the tree line. Campsites dot the terraced garden. A full dinner menu is offered. Movies and live music events pepper the weekly calendar. At a business lunch, the hostel’s manager, a smart and professional young woman, recited marketing statistics and evaluated online travel reviews as she mapped the hostel’s next steps.
While much has changed, the core values of the hostel remain the same as do its all-star staff members. Mama Yves, the hostel’s main cook, is a caring and motherly figure who continues to watch over hostel residents like her own children. Beatrice, another staff member, remains sweet, shy, and doting. Theogene, the gardener, is still quick with a smile and a helping hand.
At the grand reopening this past Friday, guests filled the courtyard to celebrate with cocktails, traditional dance, and tours of the hostel. The rooms were booking up quickly with more travelers arriving through the gates. The future looks bright. My IDC students and I learned a valuable lesson from our time at the Discover Rwanda Youth Hostel and I look forward to sharing this social entrepreneurship success story with more students in the future.