KIGALI, Rwanda — For years, Emelienne Nyiramana carried water 10 miles for 25 cents a day to support her five children, including an orphan from this country’s 1994 genocide.
Then she started a small sewing cooperative in 2007, bringing together women in her community to produce garments and earn a little income. She had no idea it would take her to New York’s 5th Avenue, where she would rub elbows with the fashion world’s elite.
Even now her work isn’t easy.
Nyiramana’s days begin before 5 a.m. in her small mud and brick home perched atop Mount Murambi in Kigali. She gets her children ready for school and then cooks the food they will eat that evening. Then she makes the one-hour hike down the mountain to work at the cooperative. After eight hours sewing, she heads to night school where she is studying for her GED. She decided that, in order to be a true leader in her cooperative, she must have an education.
Nyiramana is not just another village handicraft maker, of which Rwanda has an abundant supply. She’s part of a new generation of African entrepreneurs, many of whom are women — empowered with needle and thread — lifting their families out of poverty by selling their products throughout the world.
Although over half of Rwanda’s 11 million people still live under the poverty line and almost 90 percent rely on agriculture-based income, it turns out the ‘land of a thousand hills’ is fertile ground for entrepreneurs.
“I am proud of my cooperative and I am proud of our products,” says Nyiramana, 36, as she works with her fellow seamstresses.
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Because Rwanda is a landlocked country, budding businesses have an added challenge to get access to international markets. Indego Africa, a non-profit organization, connects for-profit cooperatives of artisan women in Rwanda with export markets. Indego joined with Nyiramana’s cooperative, Cocoki, in 2008. It now sells Cocoki’s products, along with those from a dozen other cooperatives making home décor and fashion accessories, on its website and to major US labels including Anthroplogie, J.Crew, Madewell and Nicole Miller.
The New York-based NGO funds training programs in financial management, entrepreneurial literacy and IT skills. A team of 20 Rwandan university students teach the training programs.
“Rwanda has a user-friendly regulatory framework along with world-class artisans who can benefit immensely from market access as well as education,” says Conor French, Chief Financial Officer of Indego Africa.
“In Rwanda, corruption is almost non-existent and — unlike other African countries — paying bribes here is unheard-of.”
Indego Africa and the Cocoki cooperative’s collaboration with Nicole Miller began in August 2010 with an initial test order for cloth bangles and woven bracelets. Miller formally launched the bracelet collection over the 2010 holiday season at her boutiques in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. When the bracelets sold out, Miller and Indego Africa capitalized on the momentum with a series of new designs, including sarongs, shorts, bags, and jewelry.
In October 2011, Miller spent a week in Rwanda training Cocoki’s members to produce more goods. Soon after, Nyiramana visited the United States and Miller placed an order for paper bead necklaces from Cocoki, which they say is the first-ever direct purchase order between a Rwandan cooperative and a major US fashion label.
Rwanda is striving to become a middle-income country. With few natural resources President Paul Kagame’s government has marked entrepreneurship as a strategy for economic growth.
Economic advancement is paramount in Rwanda. Unsustainable economics helped fuel the tension that came to a head in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the price of coffee — the country’s leading export — dropped and GDP plummeted. The crisis left many already impoverished people starving. Those who could no longer earn a living selling coffee tried to eke out an existence in subsistence farming and there was considerable competition for scarce land.
The crisis led then President Juvenal Habyarimana to declare that Rwanda, Africa’s most densely populated country, was like a glass of water that was “too full,” adding that there just wasn’t enough room for everyone. This exacerbated the tensions between Rwanda’s majority Hutu and minority Tutsi. Finally, genocide broke out in 1994, in which more than 800,000 Tutsis were massacred.
Now, 18 years after the horrific killings, the Kagame government is relying on economic growth to help the country get beyond the massacres. The government is pushing to get the economy to be less reliant on coffee exports and subsistence farming and to become more diversified, based on small businesses, tourism and — eventually — information technology.
To do this, the country has steadily reformed its commercial laws since 2001. Rwanda reformed business regulations, rising from 143rd to 67th place on the World Bank’s 2010 Ease of Doing Business rankings. In 2012, the country rose even further to reach 45th place. Reforms included a law that simplified starting a business. Entrepreneurs can now open a business in three days.
Rwandan business people work almost exclusively in small-scale, independent shops, but they’re able to compete against giant Asian counterparts thanks to the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). The American legislation, introduced in 2000 and now extended to 2015, is designed to boost U.S.-African trade by allowing nearly 40 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to export goods free of duties and quotas into the United States. This has helped level the playing field for small business people like the women in Nyiramana’s Cocoki cooperative.
Nyiramana continues to be one of Rwanda’s shining stars. After teaching herself English and visiting New York’s fashion icons on their own turf, she has gained new knowledge and rare perspective to share with others. Now she’s taken to teaching business English at her own cooperative, and she gives lectures to other cooperatives around the country.
“When you look at my life in the past, it just doesn’t compare to my life today,” she says, “You can see why I am a role model for other women.”
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