State of the Planet

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Basket Weaving Program Teaches Business Skills to Rwandan Women

 By Elise Christa Gout
Two young women in the vocational training program use local grasses and seizel in traditional basket-weaving.
Jolie and Florence wrap vibrantly dyed sisal around local grasses to weave their baskets. By selling their baskets in local and international markets, they will be able to fund their own businesses or save for higher education. Photo: Connect to Learn

The United Nations has designated July 15 as World Youth Skills Day in order to raise awareness about rising youth unemployment, which is one of the most significant problems facing economies and societies in the world today. The U.N. says that education and training programs—like the Connect To Learn program from Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development—are key to helping young people succeed in the labor market.

There is a faint, grassy smell that greets you outside the office of Tara Stafford Ocansey, the program manager of Connect To Learn. Upon walking in, it becomes clear as to why. Spilling out of boxes beside her desk are colorful, hand-woven baskets—a small representation of the work that Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development (CSD) has been doing. Over the past six months, CSD has taught weaving and entrepreneurship skills to women in Rwanda in an effort to help them start their own businesses or pay for higher education.

Connect To Learn began in 2010 as a partnership between the Earth Institute, Ericsson, and Millennium Promise, a non-profit focused on ending extreme poverty. The initiative’s original mission was to reduce the dropout rates of girls between primary and secondary school across 12 high-need locations identified by CSD’s Millennium Villages Project. Connect To Learn accomplished this by providing girls with scholarships to local secondary schools and covering their school, living, and well-being expenses.

But while the Connect To Learn team has supported nearly 800 students in sub-Saharan Africa, plus another 600 in Myanmar, it has found that the girls’ options remain limited even after completing their basic education. Within a year of graduating, 13 percent of the 123 scholars in Tanzania and Ghana were employed at least half-time. Only 11 percent were enrolled in some form of higher education or training. In these countries, unless a student qualifies for one of the few national scholarships available, she must self-finance her college education, Ocansey explained. And without higher education or employment, many young Rwandan women end up “at home or getting married,” with little to no means of improving their lives.

Connect To Learn is now working to improve opportunities for female graduates by implementing its first vocational training program: basket-weaving in Mayange, Rwanda. “We wanted to get [the scholars] practical skills so they could start earning income, whether that be to start their own business or to save for higher education,” said Ocansey.

Forty Connect To Learn scholars from Mayange graduated this past December after 6 years of secondary school; 37 of them chose to participate in Connect to Learn’s vocational workshops, learning to create, market, and sell their own hand-woven products.

“It’s a rapidly growing economy” in Rwanda, said Ocansey. “There’s a lot you can do in the business world that doesn’t necessarily require a university education.”

To provide the graduates with the necessary training, Connect To Learn pays a stipend to local, experienced basket-weavers, many of whom have greatly improved their own lives through selling their products in international markets. In lieu of a training fee, Connect to Learn asks participants to offer one of their first baskets back to the program. By selling these baskets, Connect to Learn can recoup some of the program’s costs and avoid fostering a “dependency mindset.” As the program grows going forward, Connect To Learn may explore a model whereby the women sell their first baskets to the program at a discount until they’ve paid back an agreed-upon amount. “We will sell those and put those funds back in the account to sustain the program,” Ocansey explained.

One woman holds up a large, woven basket that takes more than four days to make.
Full baskets, like the one Adelphine is holding, take at least four days to make. The women have also learned how to weave coasters, napkin rings, and bracelets. Photo: Connect to Learn

All of the woven products, including bowls, bracelets, and baskets, are made from local grasses and materials. The women can soak the products in tea or dye to achieve a variety of colors and patterns.

In addition to the traditional weaving techniques, the women are learning “more widely applicable skills” that they can transfer over to future business ventures. In February, Ocansey spent two weeks at the vocational training center in Mayange leading workshops on financial planning, quality control, and marketing.

“[The] Connect To Learn basket-weaving program helped me [improve] my standard of living for my future plan,” said Vestine Mukeshimana, one of the graduates participating in the program. “It helped me learn how to work together. It helped me learn how to create [a] business.”

And basket-weaving “is just the stepping stone.” Ocansey said that when you talk to schoolgirls in the Millennium Village locations about what they want to do, “you hear nurse, doctor, teacher— overwhelmingly those three things. But, in Rwanda, you hear businesswoman.”

When asked about her goals for the future, Mukeshimana said that she has many. “First, I want to develop myself,” she said. “I want to become a famous girl in my country. I [not only] want to be the one weaving and tailoring, I want to be a fashion designer and fashion advertiser.”

One of the financial exercises that Ocansey organized with the women was to establish long-term action plans. The women created line items of how much money they would need to go to school or to start their own businesses. By recording the amount of time that they spend weaving an item, how much profit each product yields, and how many hours a week they are willing to work, the women were able to determine what it will take to reach their respective goals.

“They can see, ‘Okay, if I do this for two years, I’ll have enough to enroll in higher education,’” explained Ocansey. “I think, for some, it was encouraging… This is something realistic that they can actually do to make [their goals] happen.”

Ocansey also worked with the women to interpret order forms and design color palettes that would appeal to a wide range of buyers. The program tries to facilitate selling the products internationally, said Ocansey. “When you’re competing so much locally, it’s going to be harder to get as good of a price.”

In the future, Connect To Learn envisions having an online marketplace, outside of the Earth Institute, where people can browse through and purchase the women’s products. Until then, Ocansey and the Connect To Learn team have been selling baskets at craft fairs and holiday markets. “It’s like our own side hustle,” she joked.

Three women participating in the Connect to Learn basket-weaving vocational program display their colorful baskets.
Annet, Solange, and Germaine pose with their baskets. As a part of their entrepreneurial training, they learned how to ensure product quality and consistency by creating size templates, color palettes, and sample baskets. Photo: Connect to Learn

At the end of her visit in February, Ocansey taught a photography workshop and explained how to use social media platforms like Instagram to promote their products. Equipped with the cameras from recycled smartphones, the women experimented with different lighting principles, backgrounds, and group shots. “I made an Instagram account for Connect To Learn to share these photos, and [their account] has way more followers than ours,” said Ocansey, laughing. “Hopefully people around the world will find them and order from them.”

With the success of the entrepreneurial workshops in Mayange, Connect To Learn is in the process of scaling up vocational training programs for graduates in other locations. “It’s [about] finding the opportunities, the right local implementing partner, the artisan who can do the training, and the product that we feel has an appeal here,” said Ocansey. “That’s how we want to look at it now, so it can become a self-financing program.” One such opportunity that Connect To Learn is pursuing is in Ghana, where women are learning how to blow glass using the country’s traditional bead-making techniques.

Though Ocansey said her current focus is on fundraising to sustain and expand these programs, she looks forward to returning to Rwanda in the future. “[These women] are extremely capable, ambitious people,” she said. “They are full of creativity. They are full of passion.”

Mukeshimana stressed how important it was for her to pass forward her experiences in the program. “[With the] time management skills and the business skills that I have learned, I will support other girls to make beautiful baskets and designs,” she said. “I want to be a good leader—honest, kind, and humble.”

Elise Christa Gout is an intern in the director’s office of the Earth Institute. She is a rising senior at Columbia University studying Sustainable Development and Economics.

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