We've spent the past ten days visiting four of the artisan cooperatives that Indego Africa partners with. We were all nervous the first time we visited Cocoki. During the first few minutes, we sat on separate sides of the room, awkwardly staring at each other. The women went around the room and told us details about their lives in newly learned English: age, number of children, what products they made. We soon learned that the women were only slightly older than us, but supporting between two and five children each. When it was our turn to introduce ourselves, we couldn't help feeling slightly inadequate. "Twenty-five years old, no children, not married," we told them, embarrassed. "Sorry, sorry!" they responded, shaking their heads, and the tension was broken by laughter all around.
We soon learned that the women had encountered hardships that we could barely imagine; many were raped during the genocide and suffered from HIV/AIDS, or supported children orphaned from the genocide. Yet in every interaction with them, we were inspired by the women's warmth, devotion to each other, and most of all, their strength. We observed their will to strive for a better life for themselves and their children, displayed through a continual persistence to learn how to improve their business.
In particular, we had a conversation with Therese, the Vice President of Cocoki, that we found to be especially inspiring. Through Therese, we experienced firsthand the entrepreneurial spirit alive within these Rwandan women. "What is your dream?" we asked her. To start a sewing school in the community, she immediately replied, and told us the details of her future business - the number of sewing machines she would need, how she planned to finance her business. Through Therese, we also learned the extent to which Indego Africa was contributing to the women’s lives. Indego Africa had provided Therese with both money through orders from U.S. customers and skills to learn how to use it. She learned from Indego Africa how to save, she told us, and through her savings she had already bought one more sewing machine, bringing her one step closer to achieving her dream.
We had the opportunity to teach a general business management lesson to the women in each of Cocoki and Covanya. As eager business school students, we hoped to harness the first year curriculum fresh in our heads, opting to teach on communication, innovation, and basic production decisions. We found the women to be extremely engaged. Usually shy, they argued with us about our suggestions to them on improving their operations. At the end of the lesson, not surprisingly, we found that we had likely learned far more from the women than they had learned from us.
In the end, our experiences with both the cooperatives and Rwanda as a whole were a lesson in persistence, hope, and perspective. As shown by the meticulously clean city of Kigali, the people of Rwanda are proud and determined to prove to the rest of the world that Rwanda is more than just a country that went through genocide. We met people who were determined for a better life for not only themselves, but for all of their country. We met Sino Gerard, a man who had started a business selling donuts and had grown it to a line of juices and bread products. His dream was not to get rich himself, but to invest his profits in his entire community. Everybody in his village, he told us proudly, now had health insurance and a strong roof over their heads. While all of our futures are still uncertain, we have learned from the Rwandan people to be more selfless in our goals.
We have really enjoyed our time in Rwanda and have nothing but gratitude for the hard work of Indego Africa team and the cooperative women that truly are examples for us all.
- Alex Borowiecki, Mike Elbogen, Adam Kircher, Meera Kirshnan, and Robyn Tsukayama, members of Harvard Business School's 2011 Immersion Experience Program with Indego Africa
(Photos: from top to bottom, Robyn compares bracelet braiding notes with Claire and Melanie at Cocoki, Mike walks through a sourcing decision tree as part of a final group presentation, and Professor David Thomas and Therese pose alongside Indego Africa's Conor and Jadot)