When one sets foot in ‘Gahaya Gifted Hands’, an organisation that thousands of Rwandan women attribute their economic prosperity to, you are immediately overwhelmed by all the smiling faces that were, once living in extreme poverty, but now enjoying, previously unknown, prosperity.
These women, despite the fact that they all hail from different corners of Rwanda, work like a well-drilled team at Gahaya Gifted Hands, laughing all the while.
As they weaved intricate patterns with sisal they told stories and sung traditional songs and the longer I stayed in the women’s company, a strange feeling of peace enveloped me; it was their quiet singing was like a blanket that covered me in its warmth, making me feel totally at ease.
But let me start at the very beginning. Time check: 7:45am Tuesday. It’s rather cloudy outside and I’m hoping that the heavens won’t open and spoil my day as I have a long-sought meeting with one of the founders of the aptly named ‘Gahaya Gifted Hands’.
Luckily, the heavens kept their contents long enough for me to get to the headquarters in Kicukiro without getting soaked; I was early so I, being curious, embarked on a walkabout, wanting to experience, what the ‘Gahaya’ buzz was all about.
I moved from one lovely basket to another that were on display in the administration block, all the while marvelling at the handiwork as I waited for the arrival of Janet Nkubana, the Managing Director and founder of the organisation.
Nkubana just recently won the Legatum Entrepreneurial Award, along with its U.S 50,000 dollar prize money; the Legatum Award appeared right on the heels of numerous other (awards) she had already won, both within and outside Rwanda.
Gahaya Gifted Hands has contributed significantly to the country’s treasury with over one million Rwanda Francs paid in taxes monthly while its export earning have almost reached half a million dollars annually.
The question that was playing in my mind was; “how had such a mundane and small-scale traditional pastime been exploited by this entrepreneurial pioneer, to actually lift all these weaving women from the poverty trap; all the while contributing to the country’s export sector”?
“The beginning was very difficult. Everything was really small”, recounted Nkubana, who had finally arrived, looking immaculate in a lime green ensemble.
“We had no property and neither did we have sufficient funds, however, over the years we have managed to accumulate finances through selling the baskets,” she said.
The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis left many Rwandan women without household incomes. In fact, Nkubana told me that, immediately after the unforgettable events, many of the women were reduced to walking from door-to-door, begging for help.
Unlike like many of her fellow women, Nkubana and her sister Joy Ndugutse were fortunate to be employed; they were running a hotel with their earnings, they managed to help women.
“After a while we left the hotelier business. These women made some baskets that they normally sold for little money so we decided to set up a small shop to help them,” she recalls. These humble beginnings later gave birth to Gahaya Gifted Hands.
Now, instead of walking about, cap in hand, living off the mercy of random benefactors and being exploited by craft shops that would give them a small pittance, the weavers are now able to support their families with weekly take-home salaries that range from Rwf7,000 to Rwf30,000.
According to Nkubana all the weavers have paid their health insurance ( Mutuelle de Sante) while a big number have bought either a cow or a goat as family assets.
Gahaya Gifted Hands has not only put money in the women’s pockets but have taught them other skills as well. Because many of these rural women knew almost nothing about savings, the organisation continuously equips them with this facet of business; all this to impart skills that will help them become the next potential entrepreneurs.
There are thousands of women out there who dream of one day owning their own business, just like Nkubana, who has been so successful in her own way. She gives these words of advice; “you must be ambitious and visionary; these are the keys to achieving your intended goals”.
Erian Nyiransabimana, one of the weavers has managed to construct herself a house out of her earnings.
“Success comes to those who are sure of what they want to do; so, go ahead to achieve it. It is also important to have big dreams,” she advised.