About 1,000 women in Rwanda have formed nearly 30 knitting cooperatives with the help of Rwanda Knits, a U.S. based organization that provides hand-operated knitting machines, along with technical and business training. For most of the cooperatives, the orders tend to be small and for domestic customers. But encouraged by government incentives, the best members among them form cooperative unions like the Ingenzi Knit Union, which consists of nearly 150 expert knitters from four (and soon to be five) knitting cooperatives in Kigali and Myange. They take advantage of economies of scale and greater negotiating power for purchasing raw materials like yarn. Working together under the same roof, the members of the IKU like Rose Manirarora, 32 and President of the IKU, fulfill not only large-scale domestic orders (including school uniforms that range into the hundreds of units) but exports as well. This past fall, they completed the largest knitwear order sent from Rwanda to the United States: 4,500 cozy Sarapo Loop wool-blend scarves for the fashion chain Anthropologie.
IKU non-profit partner, Indego Africa, helps facilitate the orders and funnel profits toward English literacy, computer and accounting training. They also ensure the artisan members receive a fair wage that includes 50% in advance of production. Since forming, the IKU members have seen their lives improve in ways large and small: Two members, Josiane Niyitegaka, 29, and Immaculee Ilibagiza, 30, have been accepted into the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Entrepreneurship Certificate Program at Rwandas School of Finance and Banking; several said they can now pay for their children to attend school; and one has been able to purchase a small piece of land that she rents for additional income. Yet perhaps the most poignant change comes from the woman who is excited that she now has enough money to buy something as basic as soap.
Rwandan women are standing up, Rose said, but we need more training so that we have enough skills to develop partnerships with people outside Rwanda and look for new markets in the USA.