Rwandan women-owned businesses rise

September 11, 2017 | Swanee Hunt

Is there anything Rwandan women can’t do?

Only a few years after a genocide—the equivalent of 32 million Americans being slaughtered by their neighbors this fall—a miracle occurred. Rising from ashes in that rapidly developing East African nation, woman-owned and managed businesses began producing exquisite beaded jewelry, intricate baskets, and handbags stitched from vibrant African fabrics. Today, you’ll see those inventive items on the shelves of the department store Macy’s, the fashion and home decor store Anthropologie, and the designer boutiques of Kate Spade.

In 2007, my buddy Francine LeFrak founded Same Sky to advance the talents of Rwandan women after the cataclysm, equipping them with not only employment but much more. Same Sky produces some of the most beautiful jewelry I’ve ever seen, with new designs created every time I turn around. They’ve been sold by the thousands; I’ve been buying pieces ever since the company started, and I regularly give them as gifts. In fact, when I don’t, my friends and family complain in no uncertain terms!

As Francine says, “This is more than jewelry: this is a symbol of good health, of fresh water, of education, and of the power and dignity of employment.” She has partnered with businesses like Gahaya Links, whose founders, sisters Janet Nkubana and Joy Ndungutse, I interviewed for my book, Rwandan Women Rising (2017, Duke University Press).  Here are a few paragraphs:

For women, it was a hobby. For men, a skill.

JANET didn’t set foot in her own country until she was in her early thirties, when she and her older sister Joy moved from Uganda in 1994. Janet had a background in art; her sister had a restaurant in Kampala, the Ugandan capital. In Kigali, they started out running a hotel, but soon the duo launched Gahaya Links (named for their family) to market high-end handicrafts.

Though raised in a refugee camp herself, Janet was dismayed by the utter poverty she discovered in her country. Most women were wearing soiled rags. Their children had nothing to wear, no shoes.

In one village we visited, it was very, very challenging to see women with dirty hands, who didn’t have enough soap to wash well and who had to make a very clean basket. You’d find somebody in unwashed clothes but with this beautiful basket she’d made. That’s what made me realize that this dirtiness wasn’t their lifestyle, not part of their values. It was because of poverty. The key reason they weren’t clean or didn’t have food was because they had no means of earning an income.

It’s not in the Rwandan tradition to beg. The women we met felt embarrassed, saying, “How can we go back to ask for food again?” So they walked into the hotel I managed, with baskets in exchange for the food we gave them.

Janet recognized the shapes and designs as cultural emblems of her homeland. As a little girl I always saw my mother and the other ladies in our camp weaving together. I thought, “Everybody knows how to make baskets.”

And so the sisters started their company, with groups of vulnerable women who have now grown up to be artisans. Their expertise in basket weaving is an extension of the tradition of limiting female ambitions to family roles and not mingling in public. In a pleasant irony, a cultural restriction has spawned a marketable skill.

Today, married women are more respected by their husbands because of their contribution to their families and the community, and because of the change of attitude toward women as the government has emphasized a new equality. This whole chain is a transformation being created by women. If mothers had not passed on the skill to the daughters, it would have died, and whatever we’re achieving today wouldn’t happen.

I send baskets to Uganda, to Kenya, or abroad to an international market like we have now. It’s something that can change lives. What we’re giving women is not so much a market to buy and sell baskets, but a life of opportunity.

With my buddy Francine.

Who knew small economic steps would be the key to opening new doors for women?  In the words of my good friend Jacki Zehner, CEO of Women Moving Millions, “consumerism with a conscience is one of the most underutilized tools for social change.”

As you read my book, raise a glass of thanks to Francine, a woman with an endless vision, an open heart, a complex career, a stubborn curiosity, and a wonderful insistence that we can all create a saner world.

Of course we can, her bracelets proclaim.