When COVID-19 hit, Mio Yamada ignored an advisory by the Japanese Embassy to leave Rwanda and return to Japan. She had fallen in love with Africa as student in university when she cycled 5,000 km from Kenya to South Africa. Years later, she relocated to Rwanda with her family, opened up a restaurant, and decided that she would hire single mothers as her staff. Forced to shut down due to the pandemic, Mio couldn’t bear the thought of leaving the mothers behind with no source of income. What would become of their children? She had to come up with a plan, and she did.
I interviewed Mio Yamada several months into the pandemic and was blown away at just how remarkable she is. She wears several hats, doesn’t believe in limitations and I love her take on life.
Who are you as a woman and what drives you?
I [have owned] a Japanese restaurant [Kiseki Japanese Restaurant] since 2017, and first I started as a high-quality, high-end Japanese restaurant. After one year, I decided to employ local single mothers to support the community, so now we run a full-service business.
I majored in African Studies and learned Swahili when I was in university. I decided to cycle from Kenya to South Africa. I cycled through Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and South Africa – 5,000 km and eight countries – when I was 20. I shaved my hair, put on a fake beard, wrapped my chest and pretended to be man to minimize the risks. But there was no danger; [it was] very safe. The people were so nice and very friendly.
How long did it take you to cycle all the way from Kenya to South Africa?
It took six months. I cycled every day. And [I] would wake up in the morning and start cycling and finish by noon because after that it is very hot, and I wanted to explore the villages, cities and towns. I want to see and talk to the people. So I only cycled in the morning, except Namibia [because the route I took, through the desert, had] no people, no animals, nothing. So I just cycled all day, morning to night. I stayed at each stop for a day, sometimes two, three, four days.
What brought about that desire for you to want to cycle in Africa?
I wanted to know about Africa in my way. Not by bus, not by train. I wanted to use my body and feel the wind and I wanted to see every single moment. If I cycle, I can see the small [things], even a small flower on the street. And I can talk to the people.
Before I came to Africa, many people said it is dangerous. I will die. There are many wild animals and many crimes and African people are dangerous. But I never believed that. That’s why I came, and I realized [African people] are not dangerous. They are more helpful and they respect tourists. They have a lot of curiosity and they [have] a very open heart. So I was so amazed and fell in love with Africa.
At some point, I got malaria in Zimbabwe and had to go to hospital. I also got an infection at another time, but I enjoyed my journey. My passion for Africa started at that time and I decided to come back.
What brought you back to Africa?
My husband used to work in Malawi for two years. After we got married, we promised to go back to Africa one day. Before I came to Rwanda, I was in Singapore. Life was very good but boring. I wanted something challenging, some motivation for my life. So we decided to come to Africa, and Rwanda was the safest country and it is easy to start business here.
How was relocation process for you? Did you have children already?
Yeah, I had two boys. One week before departure, I found out I [was] pregnant. So I gave birth [to my youngest] here in Rwanda.
My husband came here more than 20 times, before we relocated here, so he knew about Rwanda very well. I had morning sickness every morning, every day, and my boys entered school after three days of our arrival. We sent them to the International School.
So let’s talk about that decision to employ single mothers because you said initially, it started off as a high-end Japanese restaurant.
It went quite well [in] the beginning, but it got worse because there was not enough market for a high-end restaurant. So I was struggling. And also, for management, human resources, it was very difficult for me because those high-class waiters, managers, chefs I had [were stealing from me]. I lost 50 percent of my property. If I [bought] 100 plastics, or spoons, 50 [would be] gone. They also [stole] money and it was very, very difficult to manage those people.
One day I talked to my cleaner. She’s a single mum and she worked very, very hard. She was always with me. I always complained about my staff and how they tried to cheat me. One day I told her, ‘I wish I could work with you and single mums like you.’ The next day, she brought 100 single mums to my restaurant who were seeking jobs. I didn’t say I could employ them, but she misunderstood me and thought I was searching for single mums to work with me.
Once I saw their faces and their spirit and how very eager [they were] to work. They had children to feed but no experience, no education, no English, and of course, no money.
I wondered how I can help them. How I can support them because as a mum, I always worry about their children. I see their children in the street every morning, picking some trash and running without shoes. And they never go to school. I was worried about the children. So I came up with an idea. Okay, let’s employ these moms and train them so we [can] work together. And if they have income, their lives will get better and, of course, their children can go to school. It would give them a chance to work with me and to be independent, or [they can even be leaders] of this community. So I decided to work with them. So I fired all those high-end staff.
So how many single mothers did you employ at the beginning?
Aside from the restaurant, Mio runs an exchange program with young Japanese who want to volunteer with Mio and the community she lives in. Ninety percent of her income comes from the program and the majority of the proceeds go to community work. When COVID-19 happened, all the reservations were cancelled. She had expected 300 volunteers in 2020. The Japanese Embassy encouraged Mio and her whole family to go back to Japan, but she decided to stay in Rwanda to help the community.
So how did COVID-19 affect your business and what are some of the things that you had to now do to survive?
I stopped everything. I [didn’t] have enough money to pay salary to my staff. And I couldn’t support the community anymore.
I was so desperate to find a way I could help them. There were so many things I couldn’t do. Day by day, the restrictions became very strict. I was very scared, but I decided never, never would I let them go back to the streets. I was very, very desperate and eager to find a way [for them] to survive.
Less than one month after lockdown, we started an online babysitting program for the single mothers to share their experiences online and connect with random people in Japan for a culture exchange. Sometimes they learn how to cook our food, and sometimes they visit the market by Zoom, and sometimes they have discussions with local people. We offer so many activities and experiences online. I have been focusing on online programs and supporting the community. Now we work with 3 universities, 2 international schools and a nursery in Japan and Singapore! It is going quite well. A new project has started, we are constructing a cafeteria for local nursery children. We create a space to provide nutritious food and care for local children and mothers in difficult conditions.
Let’s talk about your NGO in Japan.
I organized bicycle tours for seven days once a year, and I invite cyclists from all over the world, 100 people, and we cycle for seven days in a small island in Japan. For seven years, I have organized those rides, so I have a huge network of cyclists in the world.
You’re a restaurant owner, you have your NGO, you also do charity work in the community. You’re a mother and a wife. What is a typical day like for you? And how are you able to manage your time effectively?
I wake up at 4 a.m. and from 4 to 6 a.m., it’s my time. I observe myself, I do some self-coaching, I meditate, I do yoga and exercise. No one disturbs this time. I think this is very important as a leader to see myself and understand where I am and know what I want to do. So I think this is very, very important for me to start my day. From 6-7, I go jogging in this area. I come back at 7 a.m. and I find my children running around. I send them to school, and I go to my restaurant at around 8:30 a.m. and work there until 3 p.m. Our restaurant closes at 3 p.m., and we don’t open for dinner time because all of us are mums; we need to go home for dinner time. So once I started work with mothers, I decided to close for dinner time. We temporarily closed the restaurant on 26 September, we are doing only delivery.
Many people say that’s very strange and how can I manage my restaurant, but I decided that’s what I wanted. So I go home and play with my kids and prepare dinner. At 6 p.m. we eat dinner and we sleep at eight.
What would you say are some of the keys to your success as an entrepreneur and running a business in a foreign land?
Trust and connection. Kiseki means “miracle” in English. I named it that because I wanted make a place where people gather, get together and are connected. And to make some miracle happen. And here, so many miracles happened already. I realize I can’t manage everything. I can’t do everything on my own. I need these people. And that connection and trust build my vision and make my dream.
Vimbai E. is a writer, journalist, ghostwriter and the founder of The Weight She Carries. With hundreds of articles publishing online, in print and for broadcast, her love of language and storytelling shines through every piece of writing that bears her name.