The Gahaya Links gift shop in Kigali, Rwanda, is a cheery feast of color. Bright reds and yellows; rich browns, purples and blues. Walk in and you won’t know what to covet first: beaded necklaces and earrings, intricately woven baskets, gorgeous printed fabric bags.
Joy Ndungutse, the company’s founder and CEO, points to products that have been sold by such companies as Anthropologie, Kate Spade and Walmart, to name a few. The shop is in a tidy, simple building that was once her mother’s house and is now her headquarters. There’s also a training center across the yard, where thousands of women come from the company’s 72 cooperatives in the provinces to learn how to make new products often designed by Ndungutse.
The 57-year-old started the company with her sister, Janet Nkubana, in the early 2000s. Turning her overriding desire to improve women’s lives into a large business was a slow, demanding process. To go into detail about it, she says, would take the whole day.
The first hurdle was returning to and operating in a country whose infrastructure had been decimated by ethnic genocide. In 1994 hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the breadth of 100 days. Most of the dead were Tutsis and moderate Hutus killed in violence perpetrated mainly by Hutus. Because the killing was so chaotic, estimates of the dead vary from 500,000 to 1 million.
“What happened here is something you can’t really talk about much,” she says. “But it drove so many of us to come back and contribute. We wanted to come home. We wanted to have an identity.”
For Ndungutse, returning to her ancestral home meant embracing a torn-up place she barely knew. Her parents had fled Rwanda after ethnic tensions mounted and eventually culminated in riots that killed approximately 20,000 Tutsis in 1959. Ndungutse grew up in a refugee camp in neighboring Kampala, Uganda.
“I saw how mothers were suffering with their children,” she says. “It’s not easy, you can imagine. You are surviving by the will of God. When you talk about hunger, I understand what hunger was all about.”
But still her family prevailed. As a young adult, she settled in Kampala and worked as a secretary in a travel bureau. That’s where she met her now ex-husband. He was working for the World Bank, and his job took the couple to Washington, D.C., for 15 years. Ndungutse raised her two children and worked as an office administrator for various companies, including IBM and MCI. She also helped to found the Washington chapter of the Ugandan Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO).
But after the genocide, she felt a pull to leave the United States and do something positive for Rwanda. She didn’t really know what returning would be like following such large-scale atrocities, but nothing could prepare her for what she saw.
“It was a stinking country because of the dead bodies, which were all over Kigali,” she says. “The only thing you could see were dogs eating human bodies. It was very scary.”
Her own kids were in boarding schools. Her husband ended up leaving. “He couldn’t take it. But I was not going to budge an inch from this country,” she says.
She used that stalwart spirit to start a furniture store in Kigali. She eventually used some of her savings from the business to found Gahaya Links. The company took root in a rural village in the Gitarama region. Ndungutse gathered 20 women under a tree and told them she had no money but she did have advice to share. One of the first things she told every woman was not to return to her class the next day unless she brought a friend.
“A friend brings another friend and we become so many,” she said. “We started with 20 and we’re now running a network of 4,000 women in the whole country.”
She figured if women could weave baskets for functional purposes, they could use the same technique to make jewelry or home decor. From that day under the tree, it took her about two years to organize the first cooperatives; there were plenty of complications along the way.
For one, she was working with women from warring ethnic groups whose own husbands might have killed another woman’s family. There were thick walls of bitterness, anger and resistance. But the women were also hungry; they wanted an income. Over time, Ndungutse says, reconciliation helped people to heal, as did working together for a common cause.
“As we sat together weaving, people started forgiving each other. You can’t live with this anger and be a human being,” she says.
Another obstacle, albeit far less intense, was the Rwandan perception of time. “I’ll tell them we need 5,000 baskets and someone will say, ‘Oh no, I have a wedding to go to’ or ‘Oh no, this whole month we have so many weddings.’ I teach them if we take this order, we have to produce it. If we think we can’t do this, let us decline.”
The company’s first breakthrough happened after Ndungutse appealed to a niche market by designing a red woven Valentine’s basket filled with candy. A global import company ordered 1,000 baskets. It took some fast work to meet the deadline, but she knew if the company succeeded at this, other opportunities would follow. Under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, she could export to the United States without paying taxes.
Trade shows were the next step. In 2005 she and her sister Janet scored their first big client in New York: Macy’s. “We are what we are because of the partnership with Macy’s,” she says.
Macy’s CEO Terry J. Lundgren was bowled over at the quality of the baskets. “This was not about a gift, this is not a donation, this is about putting women to work,” he told CNN in an interview.
Gahaya Links also partnered with women in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to create a bracelet featured in O, The Oprah Magazine. “It became the O bracelet,” says Ndungutse. “We sold tons of them, and it connected us to women in the United States.”
Each of the 72 cooperatives runs independently with a board of local officers. Women get paid for the products that meet quality control standards, and the cooperatives are also free to create their own income-generating projects. Every woman has health insurance and a bank account; every woman has a house and sleeps in a bed with a mattress.
At the Gahaya Links training center in Kigali, women from all over the country work side by side at long tables. Their deft, quickly moving fingers bead necklaces and ornaments with precision and confidence. Louise Umawariya, 34, says her life has improved. Gone are the days when she sold fruit on the street and was often accosted by thieves. Now her money is safe, she says. She’s used it to support her mother, a victim of genocide who lost all her other relatives. She even rebuilt her family’s mud house after an earthquake.
One of the positive outcomes, says Ndungutse, is that women are taking charge of their households, earning respect with their incomes. At first, many husbands didn’t want their wives working so independently, but now some women have even taught their husbands to weave in order to double their income.
“Something small can create an impact,” says Ndungutse. “You don’t have to have a lot of money to start a business. You can start small, but you must have a passion for what you’re doing.”