When I met Prisca Nabayo, my first impression of her was that she is a calm and collected woman. Across the room, she sat alone immersed in her work, knitting jewellery.This is her life, and as I came to learn later, her passion too.
Married with two kids, Nabayo’s life almost came to a standstill a couple of years back when she didn’t have a solid income to support her family.
On top of these challenges, she also had to deal with challenges that come with living with HIV, but she kept hope alive.
As she pondered on the uncertain future, luck came her way- thanks to her knitting skills. In 2012, she joined Gahaya Links, an organisation that trains women in tailoring and weaving, and thereafter, employs them and helps them find market for their products.
“Life was not easy; it was hard making ends meet. I used to be a tailor but I barely made any profits, you know how it is when you don’t have the market to sell your products,” Nabayo recalls.
“I now get paid and life is moving on well. I managed to construct a house for my family, my kids are getting an education, and I can now say that life is good,” she adds.
One of the factors that led to the formation of Gahaya Links in 2004 was the tragic events of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi that left over one million people dead.
Janet Nkubana, the managing director and co-founder of the organisation, says that after the Genocide, a lot of women approached her seeking help. At that time, she was running a hotel in Kigali.
“One of the things that struck us was the women who came to the hotel; they had baskets to offer in exchange for food. This is what pushed us, we wanted to see why these women held onto those baskets even in the midst of what they went through,” she says.
“My sister and co-founder, Joy Ndungutse, and I looked at something valuable. Because with everything these women had been through, they held onto the baskets. It meant something; this is when it hit us that we could actually put the baskets on the market. It also represented a lot regarding our culture,” Nkubana recalls.
They were sure that there was an opportunity for the women, and they set out to transform it into an income generating activity for them. And this is how Gahaya Links was born.
The organisation started out with a few women, about five to six, but currently there are over 5000 beneficiaries, plus a number of men too.
“My focus is women empowerment because there are several things you look at when giving jobs to women. I believe that when I employ a woman, the home will be fed,” Nkubana says.
Gahaya Links makes traditional crafts, including handbags, baskets, jewellery and clothing as well.
The enthusiasm expressed by the women towards their work motivates Nkubana to work even harder.
“You can see how focused and detailed they are. When they enter the building you can feel their energy, they are hardworking and take their skills seriously. These women are my reason for working,” she applauds the women.
The products made are sold on the local market and the market abroad, especially in the United States of America.
Nkubana applauds the Rwandan government for availing a good business environment.
“The government invested in developing centres where weavers could carry out their activities. Then the biggest support was when we launched the baskets, I invited the President and he came. This was the biggest boost we had, his presence was the key drive of this company because the President’s attendance for the women of Rwanda was encouraging and every time things would not work out, I would still remember the person who stood out there. He became my driving force,” Nkubana says.
A boost for Made-in-Rwanda
Nkubana points out that they are looking at diversification, they want to supplement the local market with the major purpose of boosting Made-in-Rwanda products.
“Our focus now is the market in Rwanda. We now work with schools to make uniforms; we do all sorts of trendy items, including corporate gifts as well. We have done work for the World Economic Forum, we designed their bags, we designed folders for Smart Africa, among other products,” she says.
“Our future plan is to build a big factory purposely for Made-in-Rwanda products. We are also working on building a children’s clothing line,” Nkubana reveals.
Beneficiaries share their stories
33-year-old Jeanette Uwingabire left her previous job in search for greener pastures. Her previous salary was barely enough to feed her household.
She has been with Gahaya Links for 10 years now, and her life has greatly transformed.
“I used to earn very little money compared to what I earn now. By the time I joined, I had a brother in high school, so I paid his tuition till he completed university. After I got married, together with my husband, we built a house in Kicukiro where we now live as a family. I also built a house for my mother and we rear animals too. We have over 15 goats,” she says with a smile.
Uwingabire hopes to achieve even more.
“With the skills I have, I hope to get to even greater heights. My husband is very supportive of what I do. At times when I take work home, he sits with me and watches and learns what I do,” she adds.
Aldefina Wambabariye has been at Gahaya Links for three years. Her life now, as compared to how it was before, has transformed for the better.
“Nkubana has sacrificed a lot for us, she employed us and other than a steady livelihood, she has helped us in many ways. I was able to buy machines, if I am not at work, I tailor from home too. I help my husband with responsibilities in the household,” she says.
Wambabariye dreams of starting up a small business where she will explore her potential to the fullest.
“I want to start up a small project though I still have challenges. Getting capital is still tough, but apart from that, I am good to go because I have the skills. It’s always good to have options because we have learnt so many things, it’s just right to do something for ourselves,” she adds.
Sarah Musabyemariya, a single mother of one, makes jewellery including necklaces and earrings, among other things. She loves her job and is thankful that she managed to get the opportunity that changed her life and the life of her child for the better.
“Before I came here, life was hard. I used to do casual labour at building sites. It was hard work yet the pay was poor. I also used to tend to other people’s farms to make a little extra money. It wasn’t easy at all,” she recalls.
Musabyemariya now rents a house and takes care of herself. She hopes to get a loan to start up a business as well.
Beneficiaries share their experience
I have been in this business for many years now. I am married with five children. I manage to take care of my children and pay school tuition. I also feed and clothe my family. I have hopes of starting up my own business but the equipment is very expensive, however, if I get access to a loan, I will make my dream a reality.
I dropped out of school but later enrolled at a vocational institute and this is how I got these skills and my current job. I have managed to achieve a lot, I pay school fees for my children, four of them have graduated and three are still in school.
I have been in the tailoring business for 10 years now. I chose tailoring because it was mostly what I was good at and I love it. I have managed to support myself; I built a house in Nyanza. One of the challenges we face is accessing a loan with the jobs we do, in most cases banks don’t value us that much.