• Economic Growth and Environment

Women’s Empowerment ~ Handicraft cooperatives generate income and self-esteem for vulnerable women

Kigali, Rwanda — Several stakeholders were present at a showcasing event of the joint intervention project for the Agaseke weaving cooperative in Kigali, including the One UN and Tigo (a mobile telecommunications company). The three-year project was funded by the City of Kigali and the One UN in Rwanda, under the leadership of UN Women. It sought to create formal employment and generate income for about 2,000 unskilled, poor and vulnerable women living in Kigali. The women were trained in handicraft production, which consists of traditional Agaseke (baskets) woven from sisal, a stiff fiber. The project participants also received complementary training in life-skills, such as personal finance, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), reproductive health, HIV prevention, human rights, and leadership training.

Visiting an Agaseke production center

One of the production centers is in a brightly painted compound in Gatsata, Kigali. Before joining this project, the women worked underneath a tree. This particular production center contains four cooperatives with a total of 120 members. Women cooperative members greet their visitors by clapping and singing a welcome song. The weaving room is large and cool, with beautiful woven mats on the floor. Scattered around the room are a colorful arrangement of baskets, bowls, coasters, earrings, and beaded jewelry. The women’s products speak for themselves and are sold in three shops in Rwanda.

The women’s fingers weave nimbly from long strands of grass as they listen to stakeholders’ remarks. One is holding a baby girl, while working, which illustrates the challenge of childcare for women. The main challenge that women face is the language barrier. Many only speak Kinyarwanda, which makes it difficult for them to communicate with foreign clients. Most of the cooperatives’ membership is female, but women have been getting their male relatives and husbands involved in Agaseke weaving, which creates an impact at the family level.

The production center strives to promote technological innovation through an Information Technology Center/ computer room for cooperative members. Women also use machines to mix and create colors for increased revenue. The computer room is supported by the Rwanda Development Board and the city district. Computer training is open to all women in the cooperatives. The training takes one month. The women use this room during breaks but ultimately seek to learn computer literacy. Improved external communication leads to more markets and enables better customer communication. So far, the computer center has trained 30 women. Low levels of training are attributed to the women’s heavy work load and language barriers.

Caritas, a computer training graduate, says she now has an email account and a Facebook. Before the training, most women did not know how to turn on a computer. Women now use the computers to facilitate communication with clients, but also to create new designs and new colors. The women are highly motivated— always wanting to perform better.

The Agaseke project faces some challenges, as it strives to establish a sustainable business model. A decline in cooperative membership over the years is partially attributed to the lack of working facilities. Another constraint has been the absence of prior market research and limited access to international markets. There was also a low trainer to trainee ratio, which can compromise the quality of the final products. Future project phases are expected to focus on a more robust business model and market-oriented approach.

Agaseke provides women with dignity

Judith, a weaver, says that the Agaseke project is very important for the women involved; they did not have formal jobs before joining the project. Agaseke weaving has become their main employment and source of income. Before the project, the women were struggling to maintain small and inconsistent sources of income, some through selling fruits and vegetables on the side of the road. Now the women are paid through bank accounts and have a formal employment. The average monthly income of an Agaseke member is between 20,000-30,000RWF (29.34-44.00USD) a month, but varies depending on individual capacities and demand for the products.

Project beneficiaries receive more than the skills they need to economically empower themselves. Coupled with the life-skills training women received, they reported that food security, access to health insurance, and their children’s education have improved. Women also reported improved family relations, a reduction in SGBV, improved family planning, and increased spousal contribution to domestic tasks. The women in the project feel more respected because they are now able to contribute to the family income. In comparing their lives before and after participating in the project, Judith says that Agaseke “provides them with dignity.”