Turn off one of the bustling streets in Kigali, Rwanda and onto a rut-filled dirt alleyway, follow the buzz of sewing machines augmented by the sounds of laughter, singing and an occasional disagreement, and you will reach the entrance to the INEZA Sewing Cooperative. There, tucked away behind a metal gate, INEZA gives an inspiring example of economic development through fair trade.
Through a system of mutual support and collective decision-making, the twenty-five-HIV positive women who comprise this cooperative are meeting their basic economic needs while also developing a sense of individual empowerment that transcends the workplace. Their membership in INEZA is helping them to tackle the physical, psychological and cultural challenges that face so many Rwandan women today.
INEZA (Kinyarwanda for “doing a good deed”) was started in 2006 by Women’s Equity in Access to Care and Treatment (WE-ACTx – www.we-actx.org) an international non-governmental organization (NGO) headquartered in Kigali, Rwanda. Founded in 2004, WE-ACTx offers comprehensive HIV/AIDS treatment to women and children in the form of primary care, antiretroviral (ARV) medications, mental health services, and education. Since its inception, WE-ACTx has worked with its patients to develop additional programs and opportunities to address two major barriers to fostering health and wellness in Rwandan women: poverty and lack of sufficient nutrition.
In 2004 WE-ACTx partnerd with the World Food Program to provide their patients with supplemental nutrition, but by 2005, the food subsidies had ended and WE-ACTx’s patients found themselves with no way to feed their families. The twenty-five women who formed INEZA were some of WE-ACTx’s most impoverished and sick patients, many having contracted HIV/AIDS through rape during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. These women, determined to support their families, formed the collective and began sewing traditional fabric dolls. The importance of this enterprise to the health and welfare of the women was summed up by one of the founders, Marie, when she said: “Waking up is better when you have a place to go to work.” However, with limited demand, INEZA soon realized that they needed to produce more sophisticated products in order to generate a living wage. WE-ACTx responded to their needs with donated sewing machines, a clean working facility and a Rwandese trainer/designer. During the next two years, the members of INEZA increased their sewing skills and expanded their product line from dolls to personal and home accessories. However their market was limited and competition from other sewing groups was intense. In addition, due to the high cost of fabric and inefficiencies in production, INEZA members were still not making a living wage.
Manos de Madres became involved with INEZA during the summer of 2007 as a result of cofounder Margot Moinester’s internship with WE-ACTx. Manos de Madres is a U.S. nonprofit organization dedicated to carving pathways out of poverty through women’s income generation initiatives. Beginning with projects in Honduras in 2003, Manos works exclusively with women’s groups in emerging or existing cooperatives and provides financial, technical and business training support as well as creative assistance in product development and production. In addition, Manos de Madres provides a vital international market and – as a cornerstone of fair trade practice – guarantees a living wage for all producers and reduces the cash-flow burden by providing up-front payment for materials. Manos is a member of the Fair Trade Federation and Green America.
Manos de Madres assisted INEZA in designing and producing a product line targeted to the U.S. and European markets. While still utilizing traditional vibrant African fabrics, the collaboration resulted in fashion-forward personal accessories featuring highly desired functional elements for the Western consumer. In addition, Manos de Madres funded training for INEZA to improve production efficiencies and to learn how to price products in an effort to insure a living wage. The line was launched at the August 2007 New York International Gift Fair and was an instant success, with Manos de Madres receiving orders from prestigious museum gift shops, galleries and a wide range of retailers throughout the U.S.
This summer marks the four-year anniversary of Manos de Madres’ involvement with INEZA. The collective is now a fully registered cooperative, which insures democratic management and distribution of funds. The women are recognized as highly skilled tailors and their products can be found in a wide variety of shops throughout Rwanda, the US and Europe. They have evolved from just being grateful to have a place to go every morning to healthy and successful businesswomen. To again quote Marie: “We are INEZA – a sewing cooperative of 25 women living with HIV/AIDS in post-genocide Rwanda. We view INEZA as a family of hope where we have the opportunity to make an income to support our families and ourselves. We no longer live in desperation, but are INEZA – doing well!”
However, despite INEZA’s success, the struggles to operate independently, to consistently generate a living wage for all women in the cooperative, and to realize economic sustainability continue. These struggles are principally due to the persistent problem of the extraordinarily high cost of raw materials in Rwanda, competition from other Rwandan groups whose production is subsidized by NGOs, as well as competition from producers in other African countries whose materials and production costs are lower -such as Uganda and Ghana.
In addition, INEZA finds itself at a challenging crossroads in post-genocide Rwanda. Over the past 17 years, the nation has emerged as one of Africa’s fastest growing economies and a center for white-collar industry. Cooperatives, like INEZA, and their NGO supporters are questioning their future in Rwanda’s rapid development plans. At this point, however, the government appears committed to preserving the integrity of cooperatives and their role as a buffer between a largely agricultural economy and the high-tech-oriented economy Rwanda hopes to become. Cooperatives like INEZA may not be on the cutting edge of business growth in Rwanda, but their collective work is a source of vital income, personal empowerment and improved health. The women of INEZA are winning the battle against poverty and HIV/AIDS and are realizing the quality of life gains that development is supposed to – but does not always – generate. “We no longer live in desperation but are INEZA – doing well.”