No sign hangs on the door of La Locanda B&B in Musanze, and few taxi drivers in this small town in northwestern Rwanda have heard the name. But if you ask your driver to bring you to “Alberto” or “The Italian” they will probably know where to go.
Alberto Benvenuti — whose last name, fittingly, means “welcome” — first came to Rwanda in 2006 as a volunteer with an Italian NGO called Granello di Senape, or Mustard Seed. The organization worked with Musanze’s street children, many of whom had lost their parents in the 1994 genocide, to coax them into shelters and eventually integrate them back into their extended families.
The program became self-sustainable after five years. “They didn’t need me anymore,” Benvenuti says. But he didn’t want to leave Rwanda, and thought it might be a good place to start a business. Benvenuti leveraged his international relations and political science degree into a year-long gig at the Italian consulate in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. Then he used the money he’d banked to open a butcher shop in Musanze, about 100 kilometres northwest of Kigali. This proved unwise. Benvenuti was not a professional butcher. “And I don’t like meat,” he adds. “It was the wrong business.” The shop tanked. Benvenuti closed after two years, having lost his entire investment. “I didn’t have a penny in my pocket,” he says.
At the time, he was living in a house in a compound of 10 residences built in the 1970s for workers of an Italian pesticide company. To raise money, he rented one of his rooms to travellers. Once he realized how much his guests enjoyed the place, he decided to take over the entire property and renovate all the houses, one by one. He added a patio onto the main house to serve as an open-air restaurant and bar, installed a wood-burning oven and opened La Locanda in 2016.