Rwanda: Doing development the co-op way – from the grassroots up

‘Our philosophy is that it’s not our culture and not our country – our friends there know what they want and what will work’

Questions surrounding co-operative development very from region to region, with co-op workers in developing economies having to be mindful of local cultures and the legacy of colonialism.

One way forward is to act as an enabler for communities to enact their own ideas, rather than imposing schemes from above – and this approach is meeting with success in the remote Rwandan village of Gasundwe and the surrounding area of Gihombo, on the shores of Lake Kivu in the country’s western region.

The area is receiving support from Village Rwanda UK, a small group of trustees which has helped set up a nursery school and children’s centre.

Under its president Paul Kagame, Rwanda is continuing its reconstruction process after the genocide of 1994. His government maintains a strict control over foreign agencies – they have to be invited in and have to work on activities chosen by Rwanda itself.

Development comes in two directions – top down, with the government taking investment where it can from big companies, and upward from the grassroots, using microfinace, savings co-ops and  credit unions.

Notably cases of co-op development include coffee growers and motorbike owners – a common mode of transport in Rwanda. Owners form co-ops to rent their bikes out to drivers.

Meanwhile, in Gasundwe, Village Rwanda UK is helping locals set up co-ops of their own, as charity trustee Tricia Atherton explains.

“There is a women’s savings co-op – which they’ve set up for themselves. Our philosophy is that it’s not our culture and not our country – our friends there know what they want and what will work,” she says.

There are two groups in 13 people in the savings co-ops, which fit in with the old village system of microfinance. “They put in what they can each month,” says Ms Atherton. “Records are kept and they take it in turn to have a loan. They might buy rice seedlings which they can plant and make money, or banana trees, mango trees – that’s how they grow their business.

“They are now starting to put money into banks – a very recent development.”

Rwanda is doing well compared to other African countries, with low rates of crime and corruption and free primary education; secondary education is harder to access because pupils have to live away from home, bringing prohibitive accommodation costs.

But for residents of Gasundwe things are still hard; like much of the country they do not have mains electricity or water, and there is only one solar panel in village; existence is hand to mouth, backed by hard work. Even the land beneath the village is unstable because the region is volcanic, and there is a risk of earthquakes releasing the lethal reserves of methane trapped in the waters of Kivu – although this gas could soon be tapped to generate electricity.

The co-operative projects supported by Village Rwanda UK have helped improve livelihoods, says Ms Atherton. The savings co-op has enabled members to develop a sewing co-op, allowing villagers to take advantage of the government’s Made In Rwanda initiative, which wants to ensure that the country produces its own goods.

“A lot of African people depend on bundles of second-hand clothes,” she adds. “The government wants that to stop and instead have clothing made in Rwanda.

“The women in the co-op are responding to this push. They put the proposal together and our trustees approved it; we bought eight tread-powered sewing machines and paid for the training period. I sourced a trainer who has his own sewing business – we checked quality of his work and he came and did training.”

Now the training is complete, co-op members are putting in RWF1,000 (£1) each to buy the first lots of fabric. They started out making school uniforms, and are now looking at new products and want to set up a base in the nearest town, Mugonero.

The villagers only choose the co-op model when they think it is suitable, says Ms Atherton; for instance, tourism is being run as a regular business, offering cultural experiences to visitors.

Margo and Guadence working on teaching aids

In another case, a boat – funded by a church in Rochdale – was bought for the village, which is only accessible by lake or on foot. The boat was owned by
a non-government organisation but operated by a village co-op. But this caused tension with a neighbouring village which lacked such an asset.

“It was decided the boat was too much competition,” said Ms Atherton. “The question was, what do we do with that asset? It’s gone to a rice co-op to use as haulage rather than as a passenger boat. It’s about finding out what works.”

Ms Atherton got involved in the village after signing up for Voluntary Service Overseas on her 60th birthday, visiting schools in Rwanda to share her knowledge as a head teacher. She visited Lake Kiwu after getting to know Fidel, a man living in Rochdale who had claimed asylum in the UK after escaping the genocide.

“He had found family members still alive and went to visit them,” she said. “He took me to his village. It was an amazing experience.”

One challenge in the region, she says, is to teach business skills to people who have never even had money. One of Ms Atherton’s colleagues, who worked at the finance department at Jaguar Land Rover, has been there since January to develop basic business and planning skills.

“What’s wonderful about working there is everybody wants to learn,” says Ms Atherton. “If you can teach someone something, they are grateful.

“After genocide there is a whole bunch of new Rwandans and they are young people,  aged 25-55; they have got this amazing attitude of sacrifice for the benefit of developing their country and their nation – a wonderful work ethic. They are colonising all levels of government with this sense of, ‘we can do this’.”

Village Rwanda UK has adopted a co-operative approach to its activities, making sure projects fit in with this new ethos and with government policy.

“Our role is as an enabler,” says Ms Atherton. “And I wouldn’t go into Fidel’s village and tell him what to do to – out of respect for him, and because it’s their culture and they know it better.”

Other co-ops the organisation helped to develop include a stovemaking co-op; Village Rwanda UK paid for training so people cold learn to make clay stoves, fuelled by a small wood furnace, offering a much safer alternative to the traditional, unsteady method of balance a pot above a fire on three rocks.

“They have formed co-op; phase one is done, they have sold the first lot of stove to people near the village. Phase two is moving the workshop to a different area to find a new market.”

Another co-op is developing biocomposting latrines, which separates urine for use as fertiliser. This initiative is run in line with state initiatives to improve public health and sanitation, directing the co-op into areas where money can be channelled through a regional funding programme.

And there are two new projects in the pipeline, to form co-ops for animal husbandry for goats and pigs.