Odette Mukarusagara sitting in her sewing studio.

Reaping what she sews: Odette Mukarusagara

Odette Mukarusagara still can’t believe it. “Local government officials come to visit me as a senior and respected member of the community, my neighbours trust me. I’m even on one of the senior committees of the National Women’s Council,” says the 43-year-old, incredulous. 

It’s a far cry from two years ago, when Odette and her family survived off a small patch of land in Kiziguro, a rural village in Rwanda’s Eastern Province, growing beans, maize and bananas. “Honestly, our crops were only for food. They did not give us an income,” says the married mother of four. Most days they only ate once.

Odette tried her best to supplement the family income by making and selling clothes, but without enough startup capital  and even less business knowledge  soon found her efforts unravelling. Something had to change.

A helping hand

In early-2012, it finally did. Using what little income she’d earned selling clothes, Odette bought into a Village Savings and Loans (VSL) group organised by Hand in Hand partner CARE where members learned the basics of business and money management  saving, borrowing, paying loans back. Across Eastern Province, the groups are contributing to progress the UN Development Programme calls especially impressive”.

Odette Mukarusagara and her students | Tailor | Kiziguro Gatsibo, Rwanda. Odette and her students and children standing in front of her houseThere can be no doubt the country has come an immensely long way since 1994,when genocide claimed some 800,000 lives  about 20 percent of the total population  in just 100 days. But for every reason to be optimistic there’s a corresponding reminder of how far the country has left to go.

True, the poverty rate decreased almost 12 percent between 2006 and 2011, but an astonishingly high 24 percent of Rwandans still live in extreme poverty. Likewise, although primary education enrolment has reached almost 99 percent  the highest anywhere in Africa  secondary school enrolment continues to languish at 28 percent.

Kiziguro, Rwanda

Urban-rural divide

The urban-rural divide is another cause for concern. Countrywide, poverty is three times greater outside Rwanda’s cities, and Odette’s district is no exception.

Tailoring Student of Odette Mukarusagara tailoring. Here, just an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Kigali, homes are built out of mud-covered tree trunks and only 2.5 percent of people use electric lighting. Not surprisingly, formal sources of finance are vanishingly rare.

Unless, of course, you belong to a savings group. Odette borrowed 50,000 Rwandan francs (US $70) from the VSL group’s fund and quickly set about establishing her clothing business. Equipped with capital and newfound savvy, the budding micro-entrepreneur devised a plan to sell school uniforms to coincide with an upcoming term. They quickly sold for 100,000 RWF (US $140) – more than enough to cover her loan and invest in future growth. Odette was in business.

Future sewn up

Today, Odette owns four sewing machines, runs a sewing school and earns 50,000RWF (US $70) a month. Her success has inspired competition, but as the only tailor in her village with access to a nearby co-operative boasting more advanced machines, the tailor-cum-teacher isn’t worried. Perhaps best of all, subsistence farming is a thing of the past. “We employ others to work the land for us, we can buy things we can’t grow such as oil and we have more food,” says Odette.

“Local government officials come to visit me as a senior and respected member of the community, my neighbours trust me. I’m even on one of the senior committees of the National Women’s Council” 

Student of Odette Mukarusagara | Tailor | Kiziguro Gatsibo, Rwanda. Young girl looking at camera behind a sewing machine.More time, too, most of which has gone into expanding her business. With help from her Hand in Hand trainer, Odette has already started saving for new space and machines for students. The resulting income, she says, will ensure an even brighter future for her five-year-old daughter, Divine.

“Now that we have a regular income I’ll be able to afford the fees, clothes, books and bags for secondary school and university,” says Odette.

Odette’s results

Monthly earnings 50,000 RWF (US $70)

Earnings covered loan and investments for future growth

Able to afford secondary school and university for her daughter

Hand in Hand Eastern Africa and CARE Rwanda are co-operating to empower some 80,000 Rwandans, mostly women, to work their way out of poverty by running their own sustainable businesses. The three-year, US $3.2 million partnership is grounded in our shared belief in the power of entrepreneurship to fight poverty.