Rwandan women weave their way into success

Empowered with a needle and thread, Rwandan-natives, Emelienne Nyiramana and Therese Iribagiza have changed their lives.

In a country left devastated after the 1994 genocide that claimed the lives of an estimated 800,000 in just three months, Emelienne and Therese were forced to ponder the direction of their futures.

Emelienne, separated from her family, struggled to live, avoiding getting captured or killed by genocidaires. She later discovered that her brothers, her father and two of her sisters’ husbands had all been massacred.

After getting married, starting a family and working a string of odd jobs in the capital of Kigali, Emelienne decided to learn to sew.

But she didn’t stop there with her newfound skills.

“Me and my fellow women who shared the same problem of poverty decided to start a cooperative,” she said in a video interview.

With a band of women, Emelienne started Cooperative de Couture de Kicukiro, also known as Cocoki. Therese later joined and is now the Vice President of Cocoki. Emelienne is the group’s treasurer. Both women, at 36-years-old, are now master seamstresses.



The birth and expansion of the Cocoki cooperative transformed the lives of the women, including Emelienne who had been making about 25 cents a day back when she used to carry bails of water for sale.

Fast forward four years, Cocoki is now a groundbreaking sewing cooperative of more than 40 Rwandan women, supplying fashion accessories and home décor crafts for American iconic fashion designer, Nicole Miller and high-end retail stores such as, Anthropologie and DANNIJO. Cocoki has been featured in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Elle, and InStyle.

In partnership with Indego Africa, a New York-based nonprofit enterprise, Cocoki’s bracelets and accessories will soon be sold at J.Crew next year.

“The success of Emelienne and Therese is an example of how Indego Africa’s artisan partners are reclaiming control over their futures,” Indego Africa’s President and CEO, Benjamin Stone told theGrio.

“With access to otherwise unattainable export markets and education, each participating woman is translating her experiences of financial security and increased productivity into a lasting sense of self-worth and pride.”

“All members of Cocoki have a dream,” Emelienne said. “Their dream is to become rich from their hands.”

It’s a dream that seems more possible now than ever before as Cocoki’s productivity and financial revenue continues to grow. From 2008 and 2010, the group’s annual gross revenues jumped from $1,166 in 2008 to $7,000 in 2009 to $17,333 in 2010. Emelienne is able to financially support her five children, widowed mother, two sisters and their children.

“Now we are able to pay school fees for our kids,” Therese, mother of three, said.
Emelienne, once a shy young woman who was searching for her place in the aftermath of one of the worst genocides in history, is now a confident young woman.

She’s been quoted and profiled in the Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Desert News, AOL News and a Harvard Business School case study. She’s also a graduate of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Entrepreneurship Certificate Program at Rwanda’s School of Business & Banking.

The six-month program exposed Emelienne to courses in marketing, public relations, human resources, organizational management, bookkeeping, accounting and others.

And Therese is not far behind. She’s also been accepted into the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Entrepreneurship Certificate Program and will graduate in February 2012.

The program is a five-year investment to provide underserved female entrepreneurs around the world with business and management education. Research shows that investing in women is one of the most effective ways to reduce inequality and facilitate national economic growth.

“Ninety percent of all revenues that women gain in their enterprises are reinvested into society, into educating their children, into health care programs,” said Dina Powell, Managing Director of the Goldman Sachs Foundation.

Certainly, the work of Emelienne, Therese and the women of Cocoki, with the help of Indego Africa, has greatly improved their households and their local societies.

“My children now look up to me and are proud of my success,” Emelienne said while speaking on a panel during her first trip to the U.S.

It’s a success that has even sparked a domino effect in the community.

“Other men in the neighborhood are now encouraging their wives to join co-ops so they, too, can come to America,” Emelienne said with a laugh.

Her and Therese’s recent historic trip to the U.S brought them to the Rwandan embassy in Washington, D.C., a meeting with retailers, lots of press and their first ride on an underground subway.

Emelienne and Therese— survivors, entrepreneurs, scholars and visionaries — now understand their own impact, and also that of women who band together for a greater good.

“Now our government has more incentive to create cooperatives,” she said. “Once you have a cooperative, you pay taxes to your country, you pay school fees and you better your society.”

Her goal for Cocoki is to increase growth by more than 100 percent for the fourth consecutive year and target at least $40,000 in gross revenue by investing in capital upgrades, like acquiring more advanced sewing machines and adding more members to the co-op.