Every community that lives around any water body shudders at the sight of the water hyacinth floating on the waters.
This is more so when the livelihood of that community depends on that very water.
The water hyacinth is a free-floating aquatic plant with broad, thick, glossy, ovate leaves that may rise above the surface of the water as high as a metre.
It can even grow more than 1.5 metres above the water level under sufficient nutrient supply and expand to twice in amount in two weeks.
The weed has been a nightmare for regional waters since it first appeared in the late 1980s.
But from this nightmare, COVAGA, a weavers’ cooperative in Gashora Sector, Bugesera District, spotted an opportunity. They fish out the aquatic weed from which they make a variety of handicrafts.
COVAGA was founded by environmentally conscious residents – predominantly women – from the fishing community of Gashora, an area endowed with numerous water bodies.
The work by this cooperative has created a win-win situation, where the lakes in the area are cleaned and the weed used to make handcrafts which are then sold.
Water bodies in the area include rivers Akagera and Kanyonyomba and lakes Rumira and Mirayi.
All these waters were just a few years ago near extinction owing to the chocking weed, which also made fishing – the main source of livelihood in the area – impossible.
Perusi Mukamihigo, the vice president of COVAGA, says they drew their inspiration from desperation after realising that their husbands could not fish any more from the water bodies because of the hyacinth.
“We started in 2006 with 63 members; only two have since left and now we are 60 women and one man. We weed out this plant and in the first five years, we had managed to clean up almost all water bodies and fishing activities resumed,” she told The New Times.
She said that after weeding the plant out of the water, they realised that it was sprouting from the banks where they had dumped it and started creeping back into the water.
“It was back in the water especially in River Akagera which got us thinking outside the box to find a lasting solution,” she said.
She said that, with the support from the district, they acquired short training in handicraft and as soon as they completed the course, they kicked off their project.
“We hire a boat from local fishermen, which facilitate our movements throughout the water bodies to collect the water hyacinth until we have enough.
“We let the plant dry for about seven days before we start using it to weave different handcrafts depending on the available orders,” she said.
With support from Gahaya Links, a local handcraft company, the cooperative’s products are exported to foreign markets while others are sold locally.
She said that, often times, they receive foreigners at their workshop who go on to place orders for their different products.
Their products mainly include handbags (ranging from Frw7,000-10,000), sandals which are sold at Rwf5,000, trays that are sold at 7,000, and straw hats that are also sold at Frw5000.
Mukamihigo argued that 12 years after the cooperative was formed, each member has got something to show for it besides providing a lasting solution to the hyacinth that had inhibited fishing, the major economic activity in the area.
“Our main consumers are foreign tourists. They really love the uniqueness of our products,” she said, adding that the minimum they get in a month is Rwf30,000 for each of the members.
She said that they work and sell collectively and then share the proceeds after the month.
“We share equally the income generated and each one is obliged to deposit 10 per cent of their earnings with the cooperative for developmental activities,” she added.
Maria Mukamusoni, a member of the cooperative, said that since joining the coop her life has never been the same.
Mainly, she says, she is proud for contributing to aquatic life conservation but also, in the process, she has managed to get her family out of poverty.
“This cooperative has transformed our lives as rural women. The majority of us used to solely depend on our husbands’ income but now we have become active contributors to our family economy.
“We able to meet the basic needs of the family like paying for health insurance, while our husbands cater for the developmental needs,” Mukamusoni said.
In 2011, COVEGA earned global recognition after it was shortlisted among three projects for the Energy Globe Award, out of the over 1,000 entries submitted from across the world.