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Rebuilding Rwanda: Women in the private sector

Commentary: As we approach the 20th anniversary of one of humanity's darkest moments, a look forward in five parts.
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A beauty school owned by Alphonsine Niyigena, a businesswoman who owns several buildings, a chain of beauty salons, and a beauty school. Niyigena is the deputy president of Private Sector Federation and board member for Bank of Kigali. (Rwandan Women Rising/Courtesy)

This is the second piece in a five-part series. Read the first.

KIGALI, Rwanda — To shoot her portrait, we met Immy Kamarade at her petrol station.

The photos are striking — Kamarade, in a pencil skirt and a black and white checked jacket, standing beneath a bright red rooftop sheltering the gas pump.

I typically avoid jumping to physical characteristics when writing about female leaders. We don’t tend to remark about a man’s fashion sense or hairstyle.

But I would be conspicuous by ignoring notable details if I were to skip mentioning Chamber of Women Entrepreneur President Kamarade’s commanding, feminine stance. The same with Deputy of the Private Sector Federation Alphonsine Niyigena’s elegantly cut batik dress against a long line of suits.

Both women have made a name for themselves as leading members of a still small but influential set of businesswomen in their country, some pioneering in industries dominated by men.

As women have increasingly taken on key political positions during the past two decades of rebuilding since the 1994 genocide, a newer trend is to see them getting involved in the private sector. Beyond being the global first in parliamentary representation, it may be women’s role as entrepreneurs that is especially indicative of their lasting advance towards gender parity in the country.

“The quality of women, their capacities, is of course an important part leading to their acceptance by communities broadly, by men,” adds Minister of Gender and Family Promotion Oda Gasinzigwa.

“I think it is because those women in leadership now are becoming role models. So then they are competing not only as women, but because they feel – and the society knows — that they can do it.”

For many women I’ve spoken to, work in the private sector was an essential step in restarting their lives after the genocide.

Whether their husbands had been killed, fled to avoid prosecution for real or perceived complicity, or were too traumatized to work effectively, women often had no alternative than to take up projects outside of the home. The economy was in shambles, and even businesses that existed before the war needed to be rebuilt.

Niyigena (of the batik dress) left her job as a government auditor and set up a consulting company after seeing male former colleagues making more money in private business using the same skills she had. With the money she made, Niyigena opened several beauty salons, and two years ago she opened a beauty institute in a building she owns.

“I wanted to have hair salons in every district, but soon I realized that I can’t achieve my plan without professionals,” she explains.

The Rwandan government has taken a particular interest in promoting women entrepreneurs, setting up a guarantor program in 2000 that enabled women to access loans through private financial institutions even when they didn’t have collateral.

With that money, as well as grants provided by state-backed and non-governmental programs, women are launching creative businesses, such as one building on a burgeoning mushroom industry. Entrepreneur Berthilde Niyibaho’s design empowers small-scale farmers, who cultivate in backyards around the country. Her company processes the product at a facility on the outskirts of Kigali, for consumption in country and export across East Africa.

Practicality, with a focus on the value-add, is a feature of many of the women-run businesses I learned about during my recent visit. It’s the driving force behind the country’s first women’s college, the Akilah Institute for Women, where I delivered a keynote address for its second graduating class.

Students there earn a three-year diploma in hospitality management (a direct response to the needs of Rwanda’s fastest growing sector), entrepreneurship, or information systems, with curricula designed in close consultation with the country’s private sector. The young women graduate with highly sought after skills. Already, reputation precedes the young college: the admissions team selected from nearly 1,500 applicants to fill this year’s incoming class of 66 places.

Education levels are a huge challenge. But they also share issues that stymie women’s advancement the world over: persisting stereotypes about men as primary breadwinners; husbands who feel threatened by their wife’s success and ambition; higher expectations directed toward women compared to men.

“As businesswomen, we have to think bigger,” says Niyigena. “We think that big projects are for men. As ladies we tend to fear going to the bank, asking for financing.” Serving on the board of the Bank of Kigali, she’s seen how women represent a small minority of applicants for large loans. “For smaller projects, we see many, many women."

"But for the big projects – putting up a hotel, opening a transport company – women still lack the confidence," Niyigena says.  "And that’s something we need to talk about.”

Swanee Hunt, former US Ambassador to Austria, is chair of The Institute for Inclusive Security, and is the Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Editor's note: Ms. Hunt is an investor in GlobalPost.

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