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Environmental policies offer economic opportunity

Thursday, 20 Aug 2009

By Brad Stave, VisionFund International, Marketing and Communications

Early in the morning before the sun rises, scores of women employed by the state of Rwanda take to the streets with brooms in hand. They will spend the day cleaning sidewalks, curbs and roadways – and Rwanda will be spotless.

In 2004 Rwandan officials decided that the country needed a policy to curb littering and promote cleanliness, which consequently led to a country-wide ban on disposable plastic bags.

When most people saw this new rule as a nuisance, Agnes Mukashyaka, 51, saw it as an opportunity. She has eight children and lives in southern Rwandan, an area known for its hilly landscape, prolific tea plantations and acidic soil that makes for unsustainable farming.

Upon learning of the new rules eliminating plastic bags in the county, Ms. Mukashyaka seized the opportunity to create a cooperative that produced long-lasting shopping bags in compliance with the government’s standards.

She and 18 other women established the cooperative called “Korujyimbere,” which means “work for development.” They pulled their resources and talents together and began producing goods such as her shopping bags.

When the cooperative soon faced a supply shortage, since the women could not afford to purchase enough materials to keep all of them working for an entire week, the women contacted VisionFund’s affiliated microfinance institution in Rwanda, Vision Finance Company (VFC).

The women’s request for a loan of 300,000 Rwandan franks ($530 USD) was granted, enabling them to begin turning an even larger profit.

“We can buy more supplies in the Rwandan capital of Kigali and make fewer trips. This allows us to produce our bags at a cheaper price and earn more profits,” said Ms. Mukashyaka.

The creation of the cooperative hasn’t only economically benefited these women, but it has improved social relations as well.

“One of the women who works with us had a husband who was an alcoholic. He would abuse her and tell her she was worthless,” said Ms. Mukashyaka. “After she began making profits at the cooperative, she bought her husband a sports jacket. Now with his new sports jacket, he feels more confident and has begun respecting his wife more.”

It is just the beginning of the journey for Ms. Mukashyaka, but she is already making over three times her original wage. With this new income, she is able to help support her large family and provide hope that a better future awaits her children.