Businesswoman Claudette Uwera said there is a new saying in Rwanda today: “The woman is the pillar of business.”
“There was an old Rwandan saying: ‘The woman is the pillar of the house,’” said Claudette Uwera. “Today there is a new saying: ‘The woman is the pillar of business.’”
Claudette is a successful flower grower in the southern Rwandan town of Huye and her outlook is a reflection of fundamental change taking place in Rwandan society.
To be sure, most facets of Rwandan life are still dominated by men, but a growing number of women are successfully challenging old assumptions and are making their mark in many areas of the country’s flourishing economy … small businesspeople like Claudette Uwera, as leaders of cooperatives, and in tourism and unusual fields such as launching the country’s first ice cream company and forming an exciting and highly unusual drumming and dancing band.
The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has been actively involved in many of these sectors, offering financial and technical assistance, local and overseas training and the participation of experts and volunteers (JOCV). JICA has also been involved through such specialized schemes as One Village, One Product (OVOP), a concept which seeks to harness and concentrate the specialized human skills or natural resources of a particular region to more successfully market their economic potential.
Another trend is to link such diverse spheres as coffee and tourism to improve women’s economic impact even further.
Flowers, Coffee and Tourism
Claudette was selected for training in an OVOP program. “Until then my mindset was still small, but the training opened me to a new world of opportunity,” she said.
With her new skills and more aggressive business stance, she expanded from a town center plot to a second out of town site and today provides Rwanda’s second largest city with floral displays including everything from wedding arrangements to formal city decorations.
“Ten years ago you couldn’t find a woman in my situation,” she said. “But after the genocide women were left with little option but to stand strong on their own. Now more and more, women are taking risks, and as long as they see the money coming in, men are supporting the women.”
On a personal level, Claudette has used her extra income to build a family home and can now provide the fees necessary to send her children to a good school.
On a hillside outside Huye, among the coffee plantations, Rachel Dushimimana has become a key community figure because she is the official taster for the Huye Mountain Coffee Company that works with some 6,000 local growers to harvest and market their product.
Rachel Dushimimana is a pillar of the local community as a coffee taster who wants to expand into tourism.
She has been ”cupping” for several years, tasting individual samples of each new crop several times, evaluating a complex mixture of tastes and texture that helps her evaluate the grade of coffee and the eventual price and international market the coffee will be exported to.
JICA experts and volunteers have helped to smooth and streamline the entire process from planting and harvesting to marketing and export.
On a recent day Rachel walked slowly through a coffee plantation headed toward the top of a local hill called Tare that has sweeping views for many miles across several hillside ridges.
Government officials, local businesses and JICA are all encouraging the concept of interlinking many individual activities.
Rwanda now grows some of the world’s best coffee, but as Rachel said, “Most people know nothing about how coffee is grown.”
Tourists may visit Rwanda to see the famed gorillas or other natural wonders but they may also be interested in coffee tourism and visiting local coffee plantations, and Rachel and her women colleagues would like to exploit this new potential.
A rough stone pathway for visitors has already been hacked out through the coffee trees to reach the summit of Tare and its spectacular views.
Drums, Dancing and Ice Cream
It is hoped that a local all-women drumming and dancing band will perform on the hilltop in a spectacular extravaganza when the tourists begin to arrive.
In the wake of the 1990s turmoil, a group of women, many of them widowed by the conflict or suffering from long-term medical problems, decided to form this drumming band. It was a challenging assignment because African drumming is a traditional male preserve.
But the band, with accompanying dance, has been a spectacular success and has already toured across Rwanda, other African countries, Europe and the United States.
The drummers were recently rehearsing a new ”story” told through their drums and dancing about a local village girl, Ndabaga.
Traditionally only men were allowed to work in the employ of the local king and when they retired or died their sons replaced them. Ndabaga’s father had no sons, but Ndabaga disguised herself as a boy and went to work for the king in place of her father. After several precarious adventures and the threat of death she was eventually accepted as an “honorary man” at court.
Marthe Nyiranzseyimana was one of six original founders of the group. “We decided to do this because women were traditionally never allowed to do anything important. We wanted to change the ideas of the man and show we could do something special. How can we have unity and reconciliation in Rwanda unless we change the mood of the country.”
Which is where ice cream comes in.
“After the genocide we wanted something wonderful to make people forget those tragic events,” said Kiki Katese, a former university lecturer. “Ice cream was perfect.”
She and fellow members of a local women’s cooperative called Ingoma Nishya named their enterprise Inzozi Nziza, or “sweet dreams.”
JICA provided training and other support and worked closely with the national Private Sector Federation (PSF) in an ongoing effort to expand the role of the private sector in development work.
Now a local restaurant sells sandwiches and omelettes, but its star attraction, particularly for the 10,000 students attending the nearby university, is the ice cream — the only ice cream in the country made from all local diary products, honey, eggs and fruit.
The café also employs local women and holds courses in English and training programs in marketing and customer care — another example of trying to marry different schemes.
An unusual all women’s drumming and dancing band at practice. It has already toured in Africa, Europe and North America.
Malnutrition Has Disappeared
After majoring in literature at Japan’s Waseda University, 27-year-old Yukina Shinohara became head of marketing at a Tokyo company. She was interested in working overseas in community development and learned Spanish in the hope of going to Latin America.
When she eventually joined the volunteers (JOCV) she was sent to a country she had never heard of. When she subsequently read about its history she was horrified by its violent past.
Today Yukina Shinohara lives alone and “walks everywhere at anytime” in a small Rwandan village where she is helping two predominantly women’s cooperatives (there are a few male members) to grow vegetables.
On a recent day Shinohara was helping the women to turn the rich soil of their plot near a spring. They are growing cabbages, carrots, peppers, sugar beet and onions.
Life is harsh in this area and originally the vegetables were mainly consumed by the women themselves, but now they have begun marketing them in surrounding communities.
Their plot is small and the results may appear modest, but according to one cooperative leader, Veneranda Uzamukunda, the individual impact has already been enormous.
She has five children, three girls and two boys, and said that until recently “there was malnutrition in many families. The malnutrition has now gone.”
She and the other cooperative members can also pay for better medical insurance for their families.
“Life is hard,” she said, “but it is getting better.”
Volunteer Yukina Shinohara helps local women grow vegetables and banish malnutrition.