Postcard #3 from Rwanda.  Social Entrepreneurship for Women and Girls: A Focus on Worker-Ownership

Dear GlobalEd Reader,

This is the third ‘postcard’ in our series on Rwanda. This blog describes a key purpose of the Rwanda practicum. I wanted students to have firsthand experiences in learning about how a nation– post-genocide– can thrive both socially and economically.

Thanks for reading!

Paula A. Cordeiro

One of the reasons I teach a course entitled Social Entrepreneurship at the University of San Diego’s Kroc School is because people can only care about the things they know about. And one of the key ways to understand things you don’t know much about is to have on-the-ground experiences affording you opportunities to learn about them. It’s the main reason I recently took my students working on a Masters in Social Innovation to Rwanda. In the on-campus course in Social Entrepreneurship, students examine various types of cooperative organizations; thus, on our visit to Rwanda we visited several co-ops and we were able to actively participate in co-op activities.

Why examine the co-op model?

Cooperatives are perceived to be a way of empowering people (particularly women) and fostering economic development through improving their socio-economic status. After all Rwanda’s systems (health, education, etc.) were destroyed by the genocide which culminated in 100 horrific days between April and July of 1994 with nearly a million people massacred, the new Rwandan government created a plan for the country’s redevelopment. They named it Vision 2020. Fast forward and that plan was updated and is now Vision 2030. Rwanda’s Vision 2030 builds on the earlier plan and continues to emphasize the important roles women play in a country’s economic development. Given that the major aspiration of Vision 2020 was to transform Rwanda’s economy from a low-income country to a middle-income one, this will require Rwanda to continue to have a steady and high annual growth rate. One key way to achieving this goal is the work of the Rwanda Cooperative Agency (RCA).

According to RCA’s website:

“The government of Rwanda views cooperatives as a potential vehicle through which the cooperative members can create employment and expand access to income-generating activities, develop their business potential through education and training; increase savings and investment, and improve social well-being with special emphasis on gender equality, housing, education, health care and community development.”

There are over 10,000 registered co-ops in Rwanda.  And we had an opportunity to visit several of them.

One of several coffee bean co-ops in Rwanda is Question Coffee. Question Coffee works with low-income women coffee farmers. They provide retail and training spaces where coffee professionals and consumers can gather to experience the country’s vibrant coffee sector. We participated in a women-led farm trek to see how the coffee plants are harvested. We also had several tastings. So, not only is the coffee co-op productive for the worker-owners and for the economic growth of Rwanda, the coffee is also delicious!

The International Cooperative Alliance defines a co-op as:

an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.

Students enjoyed learning about the seven principles of co-ops: Voluntary and Open Membership, Democratic Member Control, Member Economic Participation, Autonomy and Independence; Education, Training, & Information; Cooperation among Cooperatives; and Concern for Community. And, we saw evidence of each of these principles in action.

In East Africa, agriculture and hand crafting are major sectors for cooperatives and large numbers of women are involved. A Fair-trade co-op that we visited was Azizi Life. Their artisans weave baskets, create jewelry, make candles and craft other items for homes. We visited a few of their shops (one is at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund) as well as a local home to observe the process for how the baskets are woven.

The research has identified different motivating factors for why people want to be part of co-ops. One of the women I spoke with who had been elected to be the representative for her co-op group said the most important reason for joining a cooperative is because of the co-op values of “solidarity and caring for others”. She said she very much appreciated the focus on the wellbeing of their members and not just focusing on profits. She also talked about the importance of the flexibility of the loans within the co-op structure. It’s interesting to note that the research has shown (Obasi & Duru, 2012) that farmers who belong to cooperatives record higher levels of income than those that access loans from microfinance. That research shows that better loan packages with regard to the ease of access and the repayment structure was responsible for the difference between them and the microfinance farmers.

During our visit to various co-ops, we saw evidence of SDG #5 in action. Co-ops are one key strategy to achieve the targets for this goal.

Thanks for reading!