I have had the great privilege of working with a number of co-operatives every month in the market. Interestingly enough, all have been run by women for women, and it has been very uplifting to see these women empowering each other every day to ensure a better life for themselves and their families.
Nshuti By Dushyigikirane
In my previous blog, I wrote about 7 proven steps to start a successful business. That post was written with an individual in mind. This blog addresses the benefits of working with others to achieve not only your goals, but a collective goal that can shape your community for years to come.
Actress Phylicia Rashad once said, ‘when women come together with a collective intention, it’s a powerful thing.’
Many people say that women are their own worst enemies, however, if as a woman you walk around with this attitude in your head, you are doing a great disservice to yourself. You might ask why and might even rationalize that you’ve done well for yourself without help from anyone let alone women but, hear me out. From experience (and I’m very certain many women out there can agree with me) thinking like this not only closes you to a very resourceful network and support group that could do more for you than you thought imaginable but, you also lose out on life in general because fear is your driver.
According to International Labour Organisation (ILO) recommendation No. 193 on the promotion of cooperatives (2002), a cooperative is ‘an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned, democratically-controlled enterprise’. That’s a spot-on description that defines what you see when you come across women who are working towards their goals and visions with tenacity.
Nshuti by Dushyigikirane is a cooperative that creates opportunities to learn, grow and develop towards more employment and a better standard of living for all in their group and in their community. They do this by designing, producing and selling high-quality handicrafts. They started one year ago with a group of 11 women. Nshuti and Dushyigikirane are Kinyarwanda words meaning ‘friends’ and ‘support each other’, respectively.
I took time to visit their workshop located in Nyarutarama – Kibiraro, to bond and learn how their cooperative has empowered them. I went there excited to learn more about this group of women who have supported the market by attending each month for the past 4 months and I left there with such a boost of energy no coffee, nap or downtime could ever give me (and that says a lot coming from me).
How does a cooperative empower the women in its community?
A solid and mutual support group
When you first meet this group of women, you can feel their oneness.
Despite the fact that all of them speak Kinyarwanda and I needed a translator for the interview, it didn’t take away from the quiet yet palpable energy that radiated from that tiny workshop. They were doing their work while engaging with each other and you can see how they relate to one another is out of mutual respect.
With many women across the globe being marginalized and heavily cut off from major economic and social decisions, this kind of togetherness can definitely go a long way towards changing the status quo.
It also gives women a platform to feel that they can be heard and be respected because they know they aren’t alone as they have ‘sisters’ who understand and support them.
Nshuti is well organised with a president called Rosette Kuzwa, who by the way, has a definite leader aura about her, and I found myself automatically giving a handshake in the traditional manner of right-hand-out and left-hand over right wrist, to show respect. She is backed by the head of sales and vice-president, Beatha Uwamariya and members of the cooperative.
Nshuti started with several women who had skills in tailoring/sewing and knitting. Individually, they would make a few pieces to sell within their community but they didn’t really have a very clear plan on how they were going to improve their skills and increase their sales. When the women got together, they were able to share ideas amongst themselves, expand their reach and hold each other accountable for the various roles they had given themselves.
Also, by getting a platform like Kigali Farmers’ And Artisans’ Market to consistently showcase their products, it gave them a clear purpose and goal towards which they would work towards.
Steady flow of income
Most of the ladies in the cooperative had little, to no source of income, relying heavily on the men in the household or the community-at-large to help them fend for themselves and their families for the basic of necessities. This can be hugely demoralizing to any human being let alone a woman. At some point, they become seen as a burden to society which is quickly followed by ridicule, psychological, emotional and physical abuse, low self-esteem, illegal ways of attaining money and continuing a vicious cycle of poverty.
The ladies at Nshuti are able to pride themselves to be able to regularly take home an income to support their households either as primary care-givers or being a source of extra income.
More say & participation in the community
As earlier stated, a lot of women have little to no say in their own communities and households. When they have first-hand opportunity to work and give back to the community, they start earning the respect from the same. They can be approached by leaders looking to bring about positive changes, they inspire and set good examples to the youth and they are able to share with/train other women who want to improve their lives. Their social standing also greatly improves and that directly raises their self-esteem.
The ladies at Nshuti participate in Umudugudu (Kinyarwanda for neighbourhood) meetings and are regularly approached by members of the community to give advice and training to other ladies, even in other neighbourhoods.
Exposure and increased visibility
Cooperatives that have impact within their communities, automatically start getting recognition and many would want to be associated with them by helping them reach their goals faster. This is because the women show a resilient and fighting spirit even at the face of adversity which almost always draws to the emotions of those around them. They no longer look like they are waiting for handouts but, respectable women willing to learn and put in the hard work. Most people can identify with this and will be willing to even volunteer their time and resources to support the women.
At Nshuti, there are two women who volunteer their time to help the women: Irma Hartsink and Monique Fausto. I’ve seen these ladies work hand-in-hand with the women, listening and sharing with them their skills and knowledge and it’s a beauty to see a scenario where not even language is a barrier for the women to collectively work together to ensure they are a success.
Hartsink and Fausto wouldn’t have known about Nshuti if the cooperative hadn’t started doing something on their own. Their passion to see the cooperative succeed, shine and bask in the glory of their hard work, is a humbling experience to behold. It does give you pause to think what you are doing to help those around you rise above their situations and be successful human beings in their own right.
Joining the market and ultimately having their story written here is also another way that the cooperative has started getting the visibility they rightly deserve. They have had orders coming in due to the interactions of the cooperative translator and sales assistant, Rehema Merekatete, with consumers on market day and her energetic and bubbly attitude towards the work that she does.
Helping women realize their gifts and talents
If you are constantly stressed about how you are going to get your basic needs, it goes without say that you are probably stunting your growth as an individual. This is because you are wholly focused on making it one day at a time.
Every person has been born with a talent that they either know or are yet to discover.
You could be the quick-thinker who always has an answer for everything, making you suitable to be a marketer – or you could be the empath who seems to understand and feel the needs of those around you, making you suitable to work in the hospitality industry or any career that involves health or psychological care. You could even be that artsy person always able to turn the most boring things into works that draw “uuuuhs” and “aaahs”, making you a great fit to work in an area like culinary. Joining or starting a cooperative can help you identify your talents faster because you are surrounded by women who want to achieve the same. Like-minded people working and spending time together, find themselves growing faster in many aspects of their personal lives hence less stress and more solutions.
As mentioned earlier, Nshuti started with women who were skilled in sewing and knitting. However, as the women continued to bond and grow in confidence, it came as a surprise to the women that one of them was actually very good in bead-work. They had never known this and were it not for their inclusive nature, might never have known. They are now looking forward to introducing a new line of products that will feature this lady’s skills.
This was a great reminder for me how when we work together as a community – especially as women – we can reach milestones that seemed like mere dreams. The women at Nshuti are a great example of sisterhood and when I asked Rosette what advice she would give to women who are in similar positions as they were and want a way out, she looked at me with a deep gaze and said in Kinyarwanda:
“Bagomba kugira imbaraga zo gukora no kugera ku musaruro ushimishije”
‘They need to have the will-power to want to do and achieve better.’
There’s honestly nothing else I can add or take away from that statement which essentially makes it perfection.
The Nshuti team will be at the #womensdaymarket at Kigali Serena Hotel on 2ndMarch from 12-6pm. They also welcome visits to their workshop and they can be reached on Nshutiproducts@outlook.com [All images courtesy of Nshuti by D
If you are interested in becoming a vendor at the market, send an email with a short bio of your business and pictures of your products to firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed here are those of the author