During the 63rd FIFA Congress which was held in March, many will remember Gianni Infantino, President of the world football governing body, talking passionately about a ball made by rural women in Kayonza District, urging participants to buy each at $1,000 (Rwf1.1 million) as a way of supporting them. It is a ball that has caught the attention of the world but it is the story behind it that is more captivating. Since the visit of football officials and subsequent endorsement by the FIFA president, the ball has become a symbol of recognition for the women previously living in vulnerable conditions. The women are part of the Urugo Women's Opportunity Centre located in Kayonza, which supports women from in and around the district, who were previously living in vulnerable households, to become economically and socially independent. The soccer ball is among the many things the women do at the centre which was established by a non-government organisation, Women for Women International (WfW Int), with the support of donors to equip them with income generating skills. Located 5 minutes away from Kayonza town, Urugo, as the name sounds, is a serene and cosy space where women who come from different backgrounds, including survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi or victims of Gender-Based Violence (GBV), get empowered to get out of their previous conditions. Grace Muteteri, a resident of Mukarange sector in Kayonza district, is one of the beneficiaries of the project after she got a one-year training opportunity in vocational skills in 2018. Before that, she was a farmer earning very little from subsistence farming. Muteteri, who was skilled in basket weaving, was identified by Women-for Women to train others with skills to start income generating projects. Through their cooperative or savings group, they thought of coming up with a new innovation, which is how they came up with the ball. “It was a sort of competition; we were put in different groups to come up with new ideas of what to work on. I thought to myself, a ball would be something unique,” “I sold the idea to my colleagues in the group. They easily accepted the idea and we submitted it in our project. We won and Women-to-Women offered to give us equipment and materials,” Muteteri says. Muteteri, who didn’t have a chance to continue with her education after the first year of secondary school, says they make many other items out of leather, including shoes but their footballs are the most sought. However, materials were not enough, having to rely on donations and external support because they didn’t have the necessary machines and accessories to make more balls but with more visibility, more support started coming in. The visit by FIFA officials and endorsement of the ball turned around their fortunes and today it is their most coveted product. “We were over the moon when we got the FIFA news. My colleagues were excited too. Today when I sleep, I am thinking about that ball, even when I am weaving the basket, my focus is on the ball,” “The FIFA president came here and saw the ball, he loved it, appreciated the quality and endorsed it. Today our ball is renowned across the world,” Muteteri says. According to Vivian Kayitesi, the executive director of Urugo Women Opportunity Centre, the story of the ball goes way back even before the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi, because the women had learned how to make footballs out of banana fibres. All they needed was training to improve their skills and then be equipped and empowered to put their skill to use in a modern way, using pure leather which is dyed black and white, as a traditional soccer ball would look like. With the FIFA congress coming to Rwanda, Kayitesi thought that it was a good opportunity to show the world what these women are capable of doing. She encouraged them to make more balls alongside everything else they were doing. “If you see FIFA, the first thing you think of is a soccer ball. So, we had FIFA guests coming to visit the centre because they wanted activities outside Kigali and they saw the soccer ball,” “They were surprised to know that the soccer balls were made by these women. So, they bought two soccer balls I remember and were also surprised when the FIFA president Infantino mentioned it at the beginning of his speech during the FIFA council,” Kayitesi said the women were overjoyed when he committed to sell at least 100 of the balls, mainly made by women who survived the genocide, each at $1,000. “It was very exciting for all the women and we shared this information with them and as we speak, we are producing the soccer balls for buyers ordering them from Portugal, Switzerland and Europe generally,” She pointed that the plan is to scale the soccer ball project, which is turning out to be the most exciting product for the women who are originally basket weavers. They were encouraged and buoyed by the attraction the balls got. It was a case of opportunity meeting preparation, the FIFA meet happening in Rwanda and the women happening to make something that moves the world- a ball. Normally they would expect to sell handicrafts including baskets, beads and other local artifacts but it is the ball that became the gamechanger. It was a sweet surprise when FIFA checked in and endorsed the locally made balls. Kayitesi says that for many years, the women had been making the balls for children in the local communities who cannot afford imported balls. Making the balls is not as easy as one would think. It is an intricate process because they are handmade but at the end of the day the balls come off as of great quality compared to the cheap imported knock-offs, since they are made out of pure leather. Since Infantino’s endorsements, they have worked on 10 orders. Demand increasing means more income for the women and improved standards of living. Think of one ball impacting dozens of households. Kayitesi says that they are mobilizing support to get modern, automated machines that will help the women produce more balls to meet the demand. Hands-on skills to feed families Muteteri, who mastered her basket weaving skills with Gahaya Links before joining the Kayonza-based initiative, says her life changed when she joined Urugo Women Opportunity Centre, making ends meet through her handicraft skills. “I have been able to lift my household out of poverty, pay my children’s school fees and change my life for the better. Before we were living in difficult conditions, lacking even the basic needs,” Muteteri says. With no serious formal education, Muteteri says she would have continued to languish in poverty, despite the skills she had. All she needed was a bit of training and confidence boosting to set out and do something on her own, starting with a capital of Rwf30, 000. Her story is similar to that of Alphoncine Umutoni, a genocide survivor, who was only 10 when the massacres broke out on April 7, 1994. Having lost a big number of her family members in the genocide, including her father, siblings and aunties, life was pretty difficult to pick up. Her household, having lost everything, with not so many options, she got married early to a fellow genocide survivor. The mother of four -two sons and two daughters, was a housewife with no source of income. However, she knew how to dance traditional and cultural dances. Her troupe would often be invited to the women’s centre to perform for guests. Last year in April, Women-for-Women made a call for women who wanted to be trained in income generating skills and she enrolled. Initially she was trained in weaving carpets or mats, among other skills. “The opportunity really saved my life. I was just an isolated housewife with nothing to look up to. When I joined the centre, my life changed. I meet other women, we talk, we share experiences and it also helps us recover from our traumatic past. The centre, which was established by Women-for-Women International in 2013, with the support of Bloomberg foundation and other donors has since trained close to 3, 000 to start income generating projects to lift their households out of poverty. Women for Women International, has been operating in Rwanda since 1996, mainly supporting women living in vulnerable conditions, particularly genocide survivors and GBV victims to recover and start off life again. At least 75, 000 women have benefited from the different initiatives across the country. Kayitesi said they are looking to replicate the centre in other parts of the country.