It’s taken a long time for the Agaseke, the renowned Rwandan traditional basket, to secure a regular income for groups of rural women in the country.
Salha L Kaitesi, a Rwandan entrepreneur based in the UK, has created a platform for her fellow country-women to sell their handcrafts on an international market.
Kaitesi’s primary goal is to empower the women who are survivors of the 1994 genocide in the country. Besides surviving the brutal massacre of Tutsi natives, the women also lost their husbands and other loved ones. The genocide’s legacy has been abject poverty in rural areas.
In late 2010 Kaitesi founded the company Beauty of Rwanda in Newcastle, where she now lives. It’s through the organisation’s website that Kaitesi markets and sells Rwandan handcrafts.
”We hope to end poverty for the thousands of Rwandese living in that situation in rural Rwanda,” Kaitesi said in response to a set of emailed questions.
Baskets are not the only items that one can shop for one the website, as are other crafts like jewellery, apparels, tableware and wall art all crafted by the women.
Prices range between US$11 (R78) and $48 (R330) for different objects. A medium-sized Agaseke sells for $24 (R167), while a pair of beaded earrings goes for $11 (R78).
Sales are growing, the founder said. The techno-savvy Kaitesi has resorted to social sites and other marketing strategies to attract new buyers.
The scale of production is high enough to ensure that the women are able to make significant returns from their work, Kaitesi said.
The weavers are paid beforehand, that’s even before their artworks are exported to the UK. “When they get here we then have to sell as many and as quickly as possible so that we can put in another order for the women.”
‘Only one basket can’
Beauty of Rwanda is to launch Only One Basket, a promotion campaign that’s tipped to boost sales even further. The much publicised Only One Basket kicks off in London on 11 March 2011.
Only One Basket is an event-based trade fair, where crafts will be marketed and sold.
The idea behind Only One Basket is that buying a single item would help advance trade and better lives of the producers. “It wouldn’t financially strain the buyer, but would make a huge difference in the end,” Kaitesi said.
“I thought to myself: how can we get people to support us without them having to commit to something they can’t afford? Then I thought of asking people to buy at least one piece of our craft.”
The trade fair will be taken to Kigali, the Rwandan capital, in May.
After Kigali, the aim is to take the crafts to various trade channels. “We plan on having as many “only one basket” events as possible. You never know, we could be in your city soon,” Kaitesi said.
The artefacts are Rwandan culture
The crafts have been part of the Rwandan traditions since time immemorial. More like Ndebele and Zulu women in rural South Africa who dedicate time to beading, the Rwandan counterparts are renowned for weaving baskets and other artworks with their own bare hands.
Kaitesi explains in one of her blogs that they use locally sourced raw materials like sisal, banana fibre, long grass and cow dung to craft baskets.
The process of producing these crafts is usually filled with joy, as groups of women gather to weave. Kaitesi explains how laughter and singing is typically part of the gatherings.
“The more we sell the better it is for the weavers in rural Rwanda. Weaving is the main skill that they have so at least we can guarantee a regular income.
The artefacts are everywhere in the country. Kaitesi, who admits to have never learnt how to weave, is concerned that the tradition may be lost for next generations. She’s hoping that Beauty of Rwanda will contribute to preserving the old tradition.
Fair trade, not aid
The Beauty of Rwanda is all about creating a platform for the Rwandan women to draw income from fair trade, and not aid from donors.
Kaitesi speaks passionately about fair trade being a sustainable option for the African continent. “Africa is a rich continent and with the right platform the whole continent is capable of sustaining itself,” she said.
“Every time you watch the news and anything about Africa comes on, 9 out of 10 times it will be about organisations working in Africa that need the aid.
“I do appreciate that these organisations couldn’t function without the aid, but on the other hand there are companies that don’t require aid.”
Brighter future for Rwandan women
Rwanda is still dealing with the impact of the genocide almost 20 years later. No less than 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus are estimated to have been killed. Extremist Hutus perpetrated the violence.
The year 2011 marks 17 years since the genocide. Ceremonies are held in the country throughout April, the month violence broke out in 1994.
It’s therefore fitting that Only One Basket won’t be staged in Kigali during the month, as “the month of April in Rwanda is a somber month”, Kaitesi pointed out.
“This April Rwanda will mark 17 years since the genocide against the Tutsis. Everyone is quite sensitive during this period and so it wouldn’t be ideal.”
Rwanda is still a nation embroiled in healing. “We can never forget what happened and I don’t think we will ever forget. We say never again and move on,” Kaitesi said.
Kaitesi has been named as one of 20 inspirational women of African Diaspora in Europe 2011 by the organisation African Diaspora Professional Women in Europe.
So, what does this well-recognised and inspirational, yet down-to-earth African woman think the future holds for her Rwandan counterparts?
“Rwandan women believe that the sky is the limit. They are committed, hard working individuals.
“Their strength and contribution to the economy in Rwanda is there for all to see. I cannot help but envision a brighter future for Rwandan women.”