Freda Mukarumongi is one of the master weavers at Gahaya Links. She and her daughter traveled for about an hour from her village in Kayonza to come to Kigali for a two-week training.
The 40-year-old woman will be leaving for her village at the end of the training. She has learnt new designs, colors and products for the season. Each new season follows the market trend and requires intensive training for the weavers.
As a master weaver, who heads a cooperative of about 30 women in her village, Freda with the help of her daughter will impart to the members what she has learnt during the training in Kigali.
Each of the village cooperative sends 2-3 weavers to Gahaya Links headquarters in Kigali who go back and train the others. They always come when there is a new product and consignment for the company.
The traditional weaving technique is an African art but the Rwandan designs and neat finishing of the product stands out. It has been part of the Rwandan culture for centuries passed on from generation to generation.
While weaving in the past brought together women to provide for the needs of their families, today it goes beyond that; showing unity beyond the painful past, the weaving of a formerly divided nation into a new and unified Rwanda. The Rwandan coat of arms has a beautiful handcrafted basket.
“The weaving technique is still the same old traditional one. We have modified it to make finer, neater and better quality products. We have also tried to make it easier for the women who are engaged in it,” said Joy Ndungutse, the Chief Executive Officer Gahaya Links.
While the Africans’ ancestors were making baskets for home use, using sisal fibre, banana leaves, raffia and sweet grass. Different from the past, the raw materials are dyed with natural plant pigments or tea leaves as well as commercial dyes but the designs have been kept constant.
The process of weaving is time consuming with much attention and art paid to detail required of each weaver. Gahaya links still uses most of the African local natural raw materials like sisal fibre but it is not only the thread, hook and loop, it is now complimented with modernity demanded by end users.
Every year the company ships four 40-ft containers to the US within two seasons. Three containers arrive in the fall and one in spring but filling the containers, with products so small, basically earrings, necklaces and bangles for the fashion industry is no easy task.
The containers are destined exclusively for Macy’s Inc, one of the United States of America’s biggest retailers with more than 800 department stores. Gahaya Links products are still sold only in seven of its department stores.
But next year the consignment will get bigger to supply 30 stores and venture into new markets.
“Next year we shall conduct a new marketing campaign to expand our market size and supply more stores in the US and try the market in Europe and Africa,” said Nkubana. The marketing campaign will target the fashion industry, to work with top models and world stars.
Gahaya Links Limited is a profit company that empowers women through weaving. Its products are weaved in traditional, authentic Rwandan patterns and of high quality to ensure sustainability in the market. Handcrafts products include baskets, jewelry, home décor and textiles.
“We do a lot of research every season on the new trends and change the designs to suit the market. We then create products that are unique but can still be identified with our culture,” said Janet Nkubana, the Managing Director Gahaya Links.
Rwanda being landlocked definitely has higher transport than its more fortunate neighbors –Kenya and Tanzania, which have water outlets. But generally all African products in the markets abroad are very expensive which also prolongs their shelf life.
To compete with other African products in the market, Rwanda has to rely on its unique quality intricate handcrafts. So the women have to continuously be trained to equip them with weaving and innovating skills.
Freda and the women in her cooperative will next year have to find even more time to devote to weaving. On a typical day she wakes up very early to prepare porridge for her seven children and husband. But she is happy, weaving has added value to her life.
“Weaving has enabled me contribute to my family. We have health insurance and the children go to school. My husband is also appreciative and supportive,” said Mukarumongi.
Gahaya Links has restored dignity to these women, reducing poverty and checking domestic violence. Men are appreciating that the weavers are the income earners in the family, making a contribution to the family is a duty, which was almost exclusively preserved for men previously.
Mrs. Jeannette Kagame, the Rwanda first lady has been supportive of women and the weaving industry. Besides Gahaya links, she has supported the Agaseke women group which has benefited about 3,800 women weavers.
The Agaseke is Rwanda’s oldest traditional basket now called ‘peace basket’ and symbol of unity.
Women’s lives have changed with their ability to earn an income, said Peruth Mukamusoni the Chairperson of Agaseke Cooperative made up of mostly widows. She has been able to look after her 2 children and educate 5 orphans comfortably with earnings from weaving baskets.
Rwanda women like Freda turn to weaving after finishing their household chores but the market is expanding. They have no househelps to do the chores yet weaving compliments their subsistence agriculture produce.
“We can only commit what we are able to deliver. The women get distracted by the smallest things you can imagine and to get the product right we invest heavily in capacity building,” says Nkubana.
Most of the women that work with Gahaya Links are not educated. The company has to make templates for them to look at the designs and interpret them, this plus intensive training enables them learn quickly.
One of the challenges at hand is the Rwandan product competing with the ones made with machinery in China and other places. Gahaya Links chose not to be a retailer but has positioned itself as a wholesaler.
Its mission is to export its products and get as many women involved as possible, especially rural communities of women who were marginalized. The women’s lives have improved and it has contributed to poverty reduction.
Gahaya Links a for profit company has been able to support the saving schemes of these women most of them widows who lost their beloved ones during the Genocide.
It has created over 3,000 jobs to rural women and some men as well as achieving so much in such a short time. In 2008 it was named the ‘best job creator at national level,’ by the ministry of labor Rwanda. In 2007 it was recognized by Rwanda Revenue Authority as the ‘best tax payer’.
Two sisters Joy Ndungutse and Janet Nkubana, ten years after the genocide, founded Gahaya Links. The company has introduced unity and reconciliation, among Rwandan women and given to them and the entire nation the most important thing in life hope.
The author is a freelance journalist based in East Africa.