Rwandan social entrepreneurs and sisters, Janet Nkubana and Joy Ndungutse, are testimony to triumph over incredible adversity. They are an example of how women in that country are spearheading a new economic revival following the 1994 genocide which took the lives of 1 million people.
In November 1994, Janet Nkubana returned home to Rwanda having been in exile as a refugee in Uganda. She was running a hotel in Rwanda’s capital Kigali and kept noticing all the women hawking baskets in front of her hotel. Her first instinct was to convince them to move their business elsewhere as she felt they were pestering her clients for sales. Yet, she noticed that her hotel guests were among the few people with money to spend and the main source of sales revenue for these women. She approached the women and told them she would set up a shop in the hotel itself to sell the baskets directly to hotel guests, and added that she would also take their baskets to sell at flea markets when visiting her sister, Joy, who lived in the United States.
“As we sat together weaving, people started forgiving each other. You can’t live with this anger and be a human being.”
Janet and Joy came from a long family tradition of weaving. Their mother was a master weaver and used to do all the beadwork and basket weaving in the refugee camp in Uganda. Basket weaving is an old tradition among women in Rwanda, in fact today the basket is on the Rwandan national seal and currency and is known as the peace basket. These uniquely Rwandan pagoda-shaped baskets are hand-crafted from enzyme-washed papyrus and banana leaves, each featuring zig-zag designs which tell ancient stories. The basket weaving groups include both Hutu and Tutsi women, for whom working together helps heal old grievances. Hence the name: peace baskets. Says Janet: “I have survivors, I have widows, I have women whose husbands are in prison. To see them sitting under one roof weaving and doing business together is a huge achievement…these women are now together, earning an income. It is amazing.”
The sisters started their new basket weaving and sales enterprise, Gahaya Links, initially with 27 women weavers and financing the business using a mixture of personal savings and funds from winning a World Bank business plan contest to buy raw materials for their craftswomen. The business was formally registered in 2004 and proceeds from a property sale helped them open a showroom in Kigali. After a meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Kigali, Janet was linked with USAID, which sponsored her participation in a New York trade show in 2005. It was there that Janet made the link with the iconic Macy’s department store buyers and Willa Shalit of Fair Winds Trading, Inc., a marketing and trade company importing African crafts, who had previously visited the sisters in Rwanda. This event brought about a transformation of Gayaya Links as a business, and establishing Fair Winds Trading as a partner. It also marked the birth of their joint venture, Rwanda Path to Peace. Today, Willa is now the exclusive importer of baskets to the United States, allowing the sisters to focus more on production. The first order for Rwandan peace baskets from Macy’s attracted substantial media attention, and Rwanda’s President, Paul Kagame, inaugurated the event at Macy’s flagship store in New York. Following the opening, Macy’s set up a window display in its New York store in 2005, and a feature on the website.
“Something small can create an impact .... You don’t have to have a lot of money to start a business. You can start small, but you must have a passion for what you’re doing.”
In a building that used to be their mother’s house, Janet and Joy have set up a large company site, including a sleeping room for women trainees, a restaurant, a show room, and a packaging and storage facility. Gahaya Links has set up a rigorous training program, and prepares master weavers who in turn train other women. As the company grew rapidly, it had to recruit women from across the country, in churches, villages, and by word of mouth. With each of their women weavers, Gahaya Links has formal contracts and issues purchase orders to ensure commitment. The government has helped too. It has organized the women weavers into cooperatives and built training centers for them. It also covers women’s travel and subsistence costs when they attend training in Kigali.
One of the key challenges faced by Joy and Janet in the business has been getting the baskets from the basket weavers to Macy’s and an international buying audience – the process has had to go through a lot of redesign, a lot of trial and error. Joy who is the designer and oversees training to ensure quality control, works with the team at Fair Winds Trading to develop the products to meet international standards. Initially, Gahaya Links had trouble meeting buyer demand, but managed to build its capacity over time by hiring and training more and more women. Another major business challenge encountered, despite Janet and Joy’s international success, is the ability to trade across borders from land-locked Rwanda. Janet is now advising the Rwandan government to simplify export processes and lower transport costs. Among the recommendations she would like to see are the extension of customs opening hours to 10 p.m. as this would reduce the waiting time at borders for truck drivers arriving late; faster reimbursements of duties paid on raw material imports; the creation of a joint border inspection post at the Ugandan border which would eliminate repeat inspections that currently take place; an advanced cargo information exchange and cargo tracking system amongst the customs authorities in East Africa.
"We are very proactive. We are strong women. We are great managers. We are great policy makers. We can be a great force for Africa."
The social impact of the Gahaya Links business has been substantial in Rwanda and in the local communities where these talented basket weaving women live and work. Proceeds from the export of peace baskets to the US have positively impacted more than 18,000 Rwandan children, who have better schooling and health as a result. Janet’s aim is for Gahaya Links to change the way people live. The group has set up a communal bank, and she says the increased income in women’s hands seems to have diminished domestic violence for her employees. “Women weavers tell me that, because of their weaving and the income they now bring in, their husbands treat them with more respect. There is probably some envy too,” she says.
Janet and Joy have seized the government’s focus on increasing exports to the benefit of their business. When Janet found out that Rwanda had joined the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows Rwanda’s crafts duty-free entry into the U.S. market, she went to the US embassy to find out about it. Baskets woven by the Gahaya Links weavers are now are the number one export out of Rwanda under this Act. Still, there are a number of challenges, which all exporters in Rwanda have to deal with. Shipping costs have been high and it usually takes a long time for the goods to reach the buyer. Inadequate infrastructure, and the fact that the shipments have to pass through the poor port services at Mombassa, Kenya, has meant that it has taken up to two months for goods to reach the buyer. Gahaya Links has had to carefully manage its order delivery times and initiate production well ahead of time.
Today, Gahaya Links is a growing network of over 4,000 weavers across Rwanda organized in 52 savings cooperatives.
Gahaya Links’ contract with Macy’s in the United States has assured it a steady stream of orders, for now. Janet notes that Macy’s is willing to buy as many of the peace baskets as they can produce. Yet as a company, the sisters realize that it needs to diversify its product offering to satisfy changing consumer tastes going into the future. “We are looking to expand to other products, such as textiles. We are also experimenting with jewelry,” says Janet, holding up a black and white hand-woven earring. New export markets, too, are targeted, such as Europe and Canada. Their products today can be found in such exclusive stores as Anthropologie, Kate and Spade, and Walmart, to name but a few.
Over the past decade, Rwanda’s peace baskets have made quite a journey, from the homes of Rwanda’s basket weavers, to the windows of Macy’s store displays, and from there to the homes of discerning American consumers. The baskets are not only creating an income for the local women, coming from a country deeply marked by a devastating genocide, but they also spread a message of hope as Janet’s employees weave peace at home in Rwanda. The beautifully woven baskets, home décor items, jewelery, and textiles produced by Gahaya Links are a powerful example of the power of women’s entrepreneurship in combating poverty, violence, and bringing hope where there was previously none.
Why LoA loves it....
Gahaya Links, and the inspirational sisters Joy Ndungutse and Janet Nkubana who are responsible for its success, are living proof that individual women entrepreneurs can change a country and the lives of those who live there. These two remarkable women had a vision and the tenacity to realize their business on a grand scale, as a result, giving life and hope to a whole generation of women in their country. True Lionesses of Africa. --- Melanie