First-ever Women’s Opportunity Center in Rwanda
Where Design Meets Development
“This is an achievement of women and it will last forever,” asserts normally soft spoken Angelique Mukankubana, head of the women’s brick making cooperative in Kayonza, Eastern Province, at the site of the new Women’s Opportunity Center. She has every reason to be proud. A 2009 graduate of our yearlong training program, Angelique was a widow with no hope for the future. She now runs a successful cooperative that produced over 450,000 handcrafted clay bricks used in building the Center, the first of its kind in Rwanda.
“I have gained the great power of decision making,” beams Angelique.
Contributing to the Rwandan government’s Vision 2020 and Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy, the Women’s Opportunity Center (WOC) integrates economic transformation, rural development and productivity, as a space of learning and renewal for thousands of program graduates, participants and community members in the Kayonza area.
The WOC also functions as a training and service hub for women’s entrepreneurship and innovation. Services include business mentoring, access to financial services and markets, cooperative and agri-business support.
Claudine Niyitegeka, President of Abajeneza Cooperative, is interested to attend composting training at the WOC to increase agricultural yields. Abajeneza is one of the more successful cooperatives in Kayonza, recognized by the Ministry of Labor in 2012 for its high quality maize — sold to the UN’s World Food Program — market orientation and environmental protection. A current partner of the Rwanda Agricultural Board’s seed multiplication program, the coop recently received a 1.5 million Rwandan franc loan for land preparation from Vision 2020's Umurenge Program and a gift of two irrigation pumps from Kayonza District.
Khadidja Nibabyare, voted top entrepreneur from Kayonza in a Global Entrepreneurship Week competition sponsored by Women for Women International, is interested in business mentoring at the WOC. Selling bananas by the side of the road, Khadidja used to earn about 5,000 Rwandan francs – less than $10 – a day. As a participant in Women for Women’s yearlong training, she invested the program’s monthly training stipend in a business making banana pancakes. The business has grown substantially. Khadidja now has five employees and sells her popular pancakes in three communities. She makes the equivalent of $100 a day on weekdays and almost double that amount on weekends. Like most aspiring entrepreneurs, Khadidja works nearly non-stop and is frustrated by persistent sourcing and distribution challenges. She plans to take advantage of business mentoring offered through the WOC and links to credit needed to grow her business.
While some women like Khadidja are looking to expand their small businesses, others like Clementine still need a helping hand. A 2011 program graduate, Clementine was part of a 100-women pineapple growing cooperative that gradually failed due to lack of interest and people stealing the pineapples. She sells banana beer now just to survive but has a new baby girl to think of and aspirations for them both. Clementine would like access to business training classes and loan funds to start a new enterprise.
WfWI aims for the WOC to be financially independent within five years. This will be achieved through offering rental space for training sessions and a gathering space for events, a market and retail space for local small businesses, storage and workspace for lease, a demonstration farm, and lodging and restaurant services for campus visitors, tourists, and others. The dual focus on providing training and income opportunities for women and becoming self-sustaining are symbiotic. Graduates trained in agriculture may work on the Center’s farm. Others may operate small businesses in the market and retail areas. Women trained in hospitality may be employed or become suppliers to the lodging, events and restaurant facilities.
Sharon Davis Design Studio, a New York City-based architectural firm, provided support to design and build the WOC with environmentally sustainable features. The eco-friendly facility relies on locally appropriate technologies, including solar power generation, rainwater harvesting, biogas fuel for cooking, and composting toilets. The ecologically integrated nature of the Center allows for unique, hands-on farm-to-table learning that advances key development outcomes. For example, composting toilets will provide fertilizer for the demonstration farm and kitchen gardens. Organic vegetables will be used for healthy cooking demonstrations and in the on-site restaurant to prepare nutritious meals for trainees, tourists and other visitors.
An innovative center dedicated to the enrichment, fulfillment and progress of women and the communities in which they live, the WOC has the potential to take women’s social and economic empowerment to an entirely new level, where formerly excluded women inspire their still aspiring sisters to advance themselves, their families, their communities and the nation, brick by brick.