Creating a Co-op: Tubehotwese’s Origin Story

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Let Us All Live

Tubehotwese (“Let Us All Live”) Cooperative is located in a remote part of northeastern Rwanda on the Ugandan border. It was founded by Naome Nyiraneza, a local pastor whose parents were from this region. She didn’t grow up in the area, but moved there in 2001 to help the people who were living in desperate conditions, struggling to stay alive.

Naome had heard about Justin’s work with Rwandan cooperatives and asked for his help. He met with her, saw the dire need in the community, and became convinced of her capacity as a strong future leader. Based on the level of need and Naome’s commitment, Justin agreed to work with them.

He started by teaching Naome the principles of community-building and economic development she would need to help her people. Not having grown up in the area, she wasn’t sure if their lack of development was due to their unwillingness to work together, different family backgrounds, or their troubled past. Justin and Naome agreed they first needed to understand the people better, so they organized workshops to get to know them. As they interviewed individuals about their history, Justin quickly realized that the people didn’t really understand themselves.

“At this time the people cared mostly about themselves,” says Justin. “Until they could build up the community spirit, they would be condemned to a life of poverty. They had to figure out a way to bring their opposing thoughts, differences, and talents together.” Justin first worked with them individually, helping them build self-confidence and develop the motivation to lift themselves out of poverty. Once they understood what they could do as individuals, they worked in small groups to figure out what they could do together.

The groups discussed what they thought they could do together to better themselves and presented their ideas to the larger group. The larger group then voted to choose the top three options and narrowed these down to the winning idea. All this preparatory work – from Justin and Naome’s meetings with individuals, to the work in small groups, to decision-making as a collective body – took 6 months.

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Next Justin and Naome introduced the concept of a cooperative and asked the community members if they preferred to work as individuals or as a formal group. They had to identify the benefits and challenges of working together, and then discuss how they would deal with those challenges. They realized that they had the best chance of preventing and resolving conflicts by becoming a government-sanctioned cooperative. The co-op would run according to legal guidelines that would regulate and equalize work requirements and benefits to members. Accepting these rules gave them a clear structure, a sense of collective responsibility for governance, and the all-important ability to “own their transformation.”

The first step in actually forming a cooperative was to build on the resources they already possessed as individuals – to combine their own plots of land to create one collective land holding that would be much more productive. Once they had done this, they worked on registering themselves as a cooperative and in 2007 they became an official cooperative recognized by the Rwandan government. They called themselves “Tubehotwese,” which means Let Us All Live.

For the first five years, they struggled hard and had very little hope for the future. They were working towards a better life but couldn’t envision it.

A Helping Hand – Seeing Beyond the Cycle of Poverty

This all changed in 2013 when they received 77 goats from Goats for Life. The manure from the goats greatly increased their crop yield, but the intangible benefits were even more significant. Having a goat gave each family, and the community as a whole, the confidence and motivation they needed to continue on the long road out of poverty. They were inspired to work harder and more effectively toward the brighter future they could now see.

In 2014, they received their first donation from World Dance for Humanity: 40 goats. They received 40 more goats in 2015, 2 pregnant cows in 2016 (who each gave birth in 2017), and 75 more goats in 2018.

Tubehotwese was the first cooperative in this remote area, and in the beginning, people were slow to warm up the idea. But that’s all changed, as outsiders have witnessed the material and emotional benefits their friends and neighbors are reaping by being co-op members. In this isolated region, there are very few jobs or business opportunities. Being part of the cooperative gives people the ability to grow together economically.

In such a remote area, there are few opportunities to feel part of Rwandan society or connected to the world. Being co-op members, and being part of the WD4H family, gives the members this connection. It also fosters trust between the people, which is critical, because many Rwandans are still struggling to heal their physical and emotional wounds from the 1994 Genocide.

“People who live in such an isolated, impoverished area like this see themselves in a cycle of poverty, and cannot see themselves outside of it. When the World Dancers come to visit, they see a door open to the world, they understand that there is something bigger and brighter beyond their world, something they have access to. This awareness has such a powerful effect on them. It’s not just the donations they receive – it’s more the knowledge that someone in the big wide world cares about them. They no longer see themselves as isolated, but as connected to the rest of humanity.”  Justin Bisengimana, WD4H Program Director

African Hill School

! 3 Tubehotwese school kids gfIn 2010, the government mandated that every child had to attend nursery school before entering primary school. Neither of these are free, and the majority of the population struggles to send their children to school. In remote areas like Tubehotwese, there are very few schools. The nearest primary school is a 90-minute walk, each way.

In 2013, Tubehotwese set out to create their own school for children ages 3 to 7. Their first step was to convince the local people of the importance of education, and the critical need for a school.  The co-op came to a consensus on what kind of school it would be, how it would be built, and how it would be sustained.

Everyone contributed what they could to construct the two-room building, but they couldn’t raise enough to complete the construction and it soon began to deteriorate. In 2015, WD4H donated funds to give them the boost they needed to repair the building and buy supplies and equipment.

Initially, they hoped the school would bring in money for the co-op, but they soon realized that local families couldn’t pay enough to make it profitable. They were determined to keep the school open, not as a business, but as a benefit for the wider community. “African Hill School” now has 250 students and a growing group of parents who believe in the value of education for their children. Although the school is struggling to make ends meet, they have the essentials: a strong school building, seven dedicated teachers, and the determination of the cooperative. Four of the teachers receive a small salary (an ongoing donation from a World Dancer and her husband) and three are volunteers. All are passionate about their work with these children.

“Speaking with the teachers and leaders of this school, you can tell that they are confident about the success of the school and are working for little or no salary because they truly care. Watching them work with the students, and dance and sing with them, you can tell that the essentials needed for this school’s success are there, a compassionate staff that is working tirelessly towards their students’ success.”
Grace Stanley, WD4H Intern in Rwanda

Starting a Sewing Business

Under Naome’s leadership, the co-op formulated a plan to start a sewing business to serve their region. They spent many months developing the idea with our Rwanda Team, and finally presented their idea to WD4H. In 2018, they were thrilled to receive a $2,000 grant from the Procter & Gamble Alumni Foundation, through WD4H, to start the sewing business! The funds will be used to purchase 10 treadle sewing machines, tables, materials, and professional training. There will also be cross-training visits with our co-ops who are running successful sewing businesses: Twiyubake and Abakundana.

Naome’s Vision

Naome’s vision for her people, her work with Justin, the founding of the Tubehotwese Cooperative, and their partnership with Goats for Life and World Dance for Humanity, turned this isolated, hopeless, and hardened population into a vibrant community full of hope and promise.

Naome’s passing on January 27, 2018, at the age of 74, was a tragic loss to this community, but they did not despair. They gathered together, mourned her passing, honored her memory, and established new leaders who will do their best to fill her footsteps. Naome was the inspiration and light that changed so many lives. Her people are determined to continue the journey she began, taking the community into a brighter future, step by step.

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