Two years ago they were 50.Today their number has swelled to more than 600. Once despairing victims of Rwanda’s infamous genocide, today they are entrepreneurs who have woven a success story with a centuries-old skill and a refusal to be cowed by tragedy.
They are the women of Gitarama province—widows, mothers who have lost their children, women who have survived unspeakable acts of brutality. You may have seen their handcrafted baskets in Macy’s or at ABC Carpet, in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., or in the National Museum of African Art, also in the United States’ capital. You may even have seen them on the “Gifts and Samplers” page of the Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Web site at www.greenmountaincoffee.com, or in any one of hundreds of boutiques across the country.
Ten years ago, who would have thought this possible?
“Entrepreneurship is part of the answer. I don’t care who you are, where you are from, what happened, all I need is business,” Janet Nkubana said in a September interview with Economist Intelligence Unit. “Among these weavers, I have survivors, I have widows, I have women whose husbands are sitting in prison, but to see them sitting under one roof weaving and doing business together, it is great.” Nkubana and her sister, Joy Ndungutse, own Gahaya Links, a Rwandan company that promotes and markets high-quality handicrafts made by rural women.
You can’t miss the baskets made by the women of Gitarama. Brightly colored and shaped like pagodas, they are unique to Rwanda; one is included on the national seal. They are made from sisal, papyrus and banana leaf and, in the old days, were given as wedding gifts. Their distinct zigzag design tells an ancient story of two friends walking together along the path of life, visiting neighboring villages along the way. Today, they are marketed as “peace baskets,” signifying the long and zigzagging road to healing and peace after the infamy of genocide more than 10 years ago.
The baskets come in all sizes, from miniatures (about four inches high) that can be used as ornaments to tabletop fruit bowls, to pots for indoor plants and to giant utilitarian hampers. Each miniature contains a Rwandan proverb about peace. One of these proverbs says, “Agasozi kagufi kagushyikiriza akarekare,” which means: “Climbing even a short hill will bring us to a higher point.”
“They spread the message of peace on a global scale, but also, when sold successfully in the U.S., directly benefit the women who craft them, creating a thriving and sustainable economy for a segment of the population that previously lived at the margin,” says Liz Wald, founder of Economic Development Imports LLC (EDImports), a New York company that has been importing the Rwandan baskets since 2003.
The Business Behind the Baskets
In the late fall of 2003, Wald traveled to Rwanda in search of handmade goods for export. Her company sources handmade goods from women living on the economic fringes of developing countries, including Kenya and Uganda. Under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, ostensibly designed to increase Africa’s commerce with the United States, such goods enter this country duty-free.
In Rwanda, EDImports formed a joint venture with Gahaya Links to develop specific products for the U.S. market. The venture, which became one of the first in Rwanda to take advantage of AGOA benefits, sold 1,000 units of its first product, the Red Friendship Basket, in its first order. In 2004, more than 12,000 items were created, including a handwoven “peace fortune ornament” by widows and other women in Gitarama province to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Rwanda’s genocide. Exports to the United States totaled more than $50,000 at U.S. wholesale prices.
“In addition to the learning and camaraderie gained from this venture, these women have earned significant incomes for themselves and their families. They’ve even started a savings scheme maintained by the presidents of each of the nine groups within the larger group of weavers,” Wald says.
When EDImports and Gahaya Links celebrated the first anniversary of their partnership on Jan. 8, 2005, they launched a cooperative to collect income from the weaving that would be put toward the development of additional services and business opportunities that benefit the whole community. The celebration was a joyous affair, with Rwandese, U.N. and U.S. officials attending.
“Some of the women wrote a poem about how this program has had a positive effect on their lives. Others put together a small play, detailing how their husbands used to scold them for not being home, but now praise them for earning an income. That touched and amused the entire audience,” Wald recalls.
Macy’s sale of the Rwandan baskets has generated tremendous interest and, of course, profit for both the store and the weavers. Gahaya Links negotiated the deal with Macy’s early in 2005, independent of EDImports. Macy’s retail prices for the baskets range from about $30 for a set of five miniatures to $60 for baskets 12 inches tall, to $90 and up for taller ones. The weavers earn between $4 and $40 a basket, depending on the size. The first 10 shipments, weighing 7,000 pounds, sold out within a month of their display in Macy’s Cellar.
When President Paul Kagame strode into Macy’s Herald Square store on 34th Street in New York City on Sept. 15 for a reception marking Macy’s venture with his country’s baskets, it was the first time a sitting president had ever graced the floors of one of the Western world’s most famous retailers. His visit was a veritable love-in.
“These very beautiful baskets are made by the ordinary citizens of our country, women who are going to benefit and better their lives from the sales that will come from these baskets they make. They have had these skills, but they have not benefited from them. Macy’s gave them the opportunity to benefit and improve their lives, send their children to school,” he said. “We are looking forward to deepening the relationship.”
Terry J. Lundgren, chairman, president and CEO of Federated Department Stores Inc., which owns Macy’s, flew in from Federated headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, to welcome the tall, lean, soft-spoken ex-guerrilla fighter and avid tennis player, whom some call a kingmaker of Africa’s Great Lakes nations (Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo).
“This was an idea that became a business, a business that has tremendous potential to us and to your country,” Lundgren told President Kagame and his delegation. “The story as to how these baskets are made and by whom is so compelling, it has added to the marketability of the product. Today we reordered another 1,000 [baskets] for this store.”
Dave Sharma, the North America cargo manager for SN Brussels Airlines, is point man on the logistics of getting the baskets from Rwanda to the port in New York, where a Macy’s customs broker clears them through customs. “For the last month, 10 shipments were brought in from Kigali at 700 pounds per shipment. They go from Kigali [capital of Rwanda] to Brussels then to New York,” he said at the Macy’s reception. He was planning to go to Rwanda “to make sure all runs smoothly for the next batch.”
The world is full of remarkable products that will never make it to the global market. The women of Gitarama beat those odds with an item as old as the history of their country. Vision, a strategic partnership and relentless marketing and promotion (Macy’s and Gahaya Links met at a trade show in 2005) were part of the zigzag route to their success. “As time goes on, the baskets will increase in beauty and quality,” promised President Kagame, who was born in Gitarama province.
Looking at them, you wonder how.
By Rosalind McLymont