Thursday, June 11, 2009

Cooperative union elects new leaders

Knitters gathered in Kacyiru on Monday, June 8 for a historic event in the annals of Rwanda Knits: cooperative union elections.  

Twenty-two representatives and candidates--both women and men, in accordance with Rwanda's cooperative law--from the union's three founding cooperatives translated the universal cooperative principle of democracy into a favorite Rwandan method, the "line vote."  

No need to mobilize canvassers and hundreds of thousands of francs for a grueling trek on the campaign trail.  Election season lasted less than an afternoon.  Candidates for each position on the Board of Directors and Supervisory Committee described their qualifications and plans to lead the nascent cooperative union during this crucial, formative stage.  Questions and laughter ensued.  Then, with a flourish, candidates were summoned to the far end of the room.  

Rwanda Knits Project Manager Patrick Nimubona likes to say, "me, I don't dance until I've heard the music."  Yet as supporters lined up behind each candidate, I couldn't help thinking of marching band members falling into formation, ready to strike up the band.  

I felt the urge to do a did the newly elected leaders.  They have good reason to be proud.  

Board of Directors:
Rose Manirarora, President (Mpore Mama Cooperative)
Immaculée Niwemutoni, Vice President (Hosiana Cooperative)
Augustin Nizeyimana, Secretary (Hope Cooperative)
Josiane Niyitegeka, Member (Mpore Mama Cooperative)
Protegène Ndagijimana, Member (Hope Cooperative)

Supervisory Committee:
Caritas Kayitesi, Member (Hosiana Cooperative)
Eric Uwizeyimana, Member (Hosiana Cooperative)
Godeberthe Mukomasalo, Member (Mpore Mama Cooperative)

Friday, June 5, 2009

6 a.m. Study Trip

The members of the Rwanda Knits Cooperative Union Formation Committee (CUFC) were so eager to get their registration process off the ground that they beat the sun to the punch.  Waking in the pre-dawn hours on Friday, May 29, the CUFC embarked on its first official "study trip" to the Rwanda Art Cooperative Union.

Rwanda Art is one of the nation's first--and most famous--craft cooperative unions.  It is located in Butare, university town about two hours south of Kigali, in Southern Province.  The Union's headquarters is about two kilometers north of town center, down a dusty road shared by the UN World Food Program.  

We met with Louise Gérard, Rwanda Art Accountant and Marketing Director.  She is one of two cooperative union employees.  Louise shared some CU history, marketing strategies, accomplishments, and challenges.  

Three primary cooperatives including over 1,000 Rwandan crafts(wo)men constitute the Rwanda Art membership: COPAF (Nyamagabe), COPABU (Huye), and COPARWA (Muhanga).  Another cooperative, KAKIRA (Kirehe), also sells its goods to Rwanda Art, but may not join the union because it is located in a different province according to Rwandan cooperative law.  All four groups began as traditional craft associations supported by the German government, then became cooperatives and formed the CU in 2007 in order to access the export market more effectively.

Much of our discussion about marketing tied back to the Marketing and Sales training that Rwanda Knits members had attended in March.  For example, Louise explained how basket-makers cater their designs to a Western market.  While local customers tend to value aesthetics over utility, customers abroad tend to prefer baskets that are both beautiful and utilitarian.  New products are designed to store, stack, and stockpile household items.  Louise also cited the central role of the internet and print materials to Rwanda Art's exports marketing strategy.  Check out their website at to see for yourself!

Also in line with the business skills trainings Rwanda Knits has been facilitating for future-CU members, Louise was kind enough to share examples of Rwanda Art's financial record-keeping books and procedures (see photo).  The document every transaction in triplets, with copies of original receipts, a manual record, and computer copy.  CUFC members, especially Rose from Mpore Mama, were extremely impressed: "NIBYIZA! (It's SO nice!)" 

Finally, we met Marie, a member of COOPAVU.  She shared some challenges and benefits of CU membership.  Primarily, her PC struggled to engage new members--who may be less technically skilled--in new design techniques and production.  She also cited the effect of the economic downturn on export sales.  However, she emphasized that the benefits of CU membership far exceed the costs.  Increased orders, access to training, and the ability to collaborate with other PCs on new designs and market strategies have enabled her members to drastically increase their incomes, and continue to practice the traditional arts that are so central in Rwandan culture.

All in all, CUFC members were extremely engaged in the conversation.  In follow-up conversations, they made it clear that they appreciated both an honest analysis of the challenges ahead, as well as an inspirational model to draw on.