Rooted in the Details: The Origin Story of Butaro’s Future Furniture

With all eyes locked intently on UGHE’s contemporary, Imigongo-adorned buildings popping up across 5,000 sq. meters of Butaro, Rwanda’s hills, it’s easy to overlook some of the details that go into bringing a University to life. From office cubicles to bed frames and desks, wood is ubiquitous in our everyday lives and essential to cultivating a space for students, staff, and faculty to live, learn, and thrive. To furnish the Butaro Campus, UGHE engaged MASS Design Group and local Rwandan wood and metal shops, Inwood, Wood Habitat, KALKA, Ndani, and Manumetal in a partnership that will not only create sustainable and long-lasting pieces, but drive social impact.

Recently, we visited two of these shops to better understand the unique craftsmanship that has gone into each item of furniture.

To meet the growing demand for handcrafted wood and metal work, several shops across Rwanda have begun specializing in customized, locally-sourced furniture. Entering a woodworking space is like taking a peek behind the artisan furniture curtain. Sawdust dances in the early afternoon sunlight accompanied by a soundtrack of high-power machinery. Walking among the mountains of wood-shavings, it’s hard not to feel sucked in by the lure of this tradition.

Mountains of wood shavings line the floors of Manumetal’s shop.

Wikke Tuinhout is founder and owner of Inwood, a shop in Kigali that designs and produces high-quality wooden furniture using locally available, sustainable wood. Inwood has produced library tables, reception desks, and coffee tables for UGHE’s campus, all using dense and strong wood such as Congo-based mvule and Rwanda-based eucalyptus.

Displaying UGHE’s future coffee tables made from Congo-based mvule wood.

What initially began as a side project for Wikke, turned into a full-scale shop when she recognized that in Rwanda, the demand for quality craft furniture that would last generations was high. Much of the mass-produced furniture splits, frays, and warps after a few years of use. UGHE’s furniture, particularly the red-hued library tables, are designed to withstand decades of use, providing the space and structure for the next generation of global health leaders to pour over their textbooks and furiously type away on their laptops.

UGHE library tables in progress at Inwood’s workshop, crafted from Rwandan eucalyptus wood.

To construct these tables, wood is bought and cut into rough dimensions and dried for at least nine months before being sliced into stands and panels which are later planed (smoothed and leveled) before receiving varnishing. The final product is not only stunning, but practical and useful, a seemingly simple object resulting from thoughtful and complex technique, design, and mathematical precision.

Rough cuts of wood drying in the afternoon sun at Inwood’s workshop.

Wooden furniture manufacturing is a precise art and one that has been practiced in Kigali for decades. As demand increases and the industry continues to shift, local shops are capitalizing on modern design trends, yet refusing to compromise the integrity of the creation process or community-centered model for a quick finish. Similarly to Inwood, Kigali-based wood and metal production company, Manumetal is preserving this long-held tradition while experimenting with new styles and clientele.

While Inwood’s operations are relatively new, Manumetal is a household name in Kigali, having operated since 1967. Initially started by Belgian entrepreneurs, operations halted after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. After Mr. Robert Bayigamba took over as CEO and re-established the company in 2009, he rebuilt the site, employee-base, and production. Today, many of Rwanda’s government buildings, hospitals, schools, and restaurants have been furnished through Manumetal’s metallic, wooden, and aluminum manufacturing.

Modern-styled metal handles that will be attached to UGHE’s bed frame drawers.

Divine Umulinga, Head of Sales and Marketing, describes Manumetal’s process as collaborative, inclusive, and innovative. With strategic guidance and partnership from MASS Design Group, they were tasked with producing UGHE’s bed frames, drawer sets, tables, and lockers. Manumetal integrated metal production with their wood products to minimize cost and maximize a sleek and modern design.

Sarah Mohland, Principal at MASS Design Group, weighed-in on this collaborative partnership and the value of local-sourcing in noting, “While it may not be the easiest option to locally fabricate in bulk, it was a carefully calibrated decision to maximize the impact of the infrastructure investment on the local economies whilst also ensuring the campus can be maintained by local knowledge for years to come.”

According to Sarah, “This approach embodies the ethos that the Butaro District Hospital was built upon with Partners In Health, and the result was a community that embraced the hospital as their own.”

This same ethos of equity and sustainability is driving UGHE’s construction and procurement process; all designed to empower both at the local and global level.

Mathilde Mutuyimana, Head of Manumetal’s metal workshop, handling UGHE metal table frames.

Divine notes that Manumetal is “excited and proud” to have a hand in bringing UGHE’s dormitories to life, particularly as the company expands its horizons, focusing on “compact” and “sustainable” living. According to her, this next frontier of furniture production aligns with the generational shift from living in houses, to apartments and shared-spaces.

Though swift production is key, the majority of wood shops are more than just assembly lines for churning out piece after piece. Many have integrated community empowerment initiatives within their models, creating programs that provide skills-training to the next generation of artisan crafters. Both Manumetal and Inwood partner with vocational-training initiatives, bringing on interns to learn the tools of the trade and later hiring them as full-time staff.

Divine explains that in Manumetal’s case, the craftsmen constructing UGHE’s circular picnic tables began as interns, and now have the knowledge and expertise to design and create their own wooden furniture.

Manumetal’s former interns and current employees designing and constructing picnic tables for the Butaro Campus.

Inwood and Manumetal are just two of the five dedicated furniture production shops working toward creating spaces and structures that will allow UGHE students to thrive and learn in their new environment. There is a certain palpable magic to walking around the shops. So often the impact of one’s work is difficult to measure. But with each wide stroke of sanding paper and each spatter of welding sparks, one is immediately aware of the meditative power of human handiwork.

Manumetal craftsman welding a table frame for UGHE.

As future generations of global health leaders gather to learn and grow in Butaro, an appreciation for each aspect of campus development – big and small – is important. If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a wide network of determined and interconnected partners to build a hub for learning.

UGHE’s future drawer sets constructed at Manumetal. Each Set takes 3 hours to create and assemble.