Janet Nkubana, Co-Founder and COO, Gahaya Links, Rwanda
Words of Wisdom: “We are very proactive. We are strong women. We are great managers. We are great policy makers. We can be a great force for Africa.” – Janet Nkubana
Interview with Janet Nkubana, Co-Founder and COO, Gahaya Links, Rwanda
Janet Nkubana, Co-Founder and COO, Gahaya Links, Rwanda
Janet Nkubana and her sister Joy Ndungutse, co-founded Gahaya Links. They have been recognized internationally for not only creating business opportunities for hundreds of women (and men) in rural Rwanda after a dark point in Rwanda history, but also by taking that business to international markets, particularly with a major US purchaser Macy’s, Fair Winds Trading and Oprah Magazine, among many others. Gahaya Links is now the leader of Rwanda’s one-of-a-kind baskets commonly known as “Peace Baskets”.
The Agaseke, “Peace Basket,” is Rwanda’s oldest traditional basket now the a symbol of unity. Gahaya Links’ success is based on traditional weaving techniques to empower the women of Rwanda and the country’s socioeconomic development.
Gahaya Links became the first Rwandan handcraft export company to benefit from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) by exporting to the United States. Weavers gave the name to the peace basket, because they had to put their differences aside in order to work together and build their communities and a country once so devastated.
Gahaya Links has won many awards including: Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable end of Hunger in 2008 and the Gold Exporter of the Year 2008 by Rwanda Development Board; an award given due to its transparency, promoting of Rwanda and create a great impact on Rwandans.
Rwanda Development Board: www.rdb.rw/
African Growth & Opportunity Act (AGOA) www.agoa.gov
Janet Nkubana, Co-Founder and COO, Gahaya Links, Rwanda
Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly altered for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the audio and video version. We welcome comments on the Wisdom Exchange TV website.
It is my understanding that you where in Uganda in 1994 and then you came back to Rwanda to start Gahaya Links. What was the catalyst for starting this business?
Although many talk about the 1994 Genocide, Rwanda had problems in the 1940 and 1950s.
I was raised in a refuge camp in Uganda after my parents went there after the 1959 clashes in Rwanda.
After 1994, we realized we were all now free and we could no longer be refugees. We needed to go back home and regain our nationality. When we came back, my sister Joy and I, we were very impacted by the situation at time. We would see women with fresh wounds, children on the streets, men with machetes and young girls all over. That was the most challenging time of my life, as it was difficult to see so many people traumatized looking for food.
At that time we were running a small hotel, and people knew if they came there they would find feed. We started meeting the people that came to hotel and we saw the hopeless situation they were in. We started to think of how we could give back.
When I was in the refugee camp, I was fortunate enough to be picked by the church to go to school. I realized how much people paid for church dues that helped me go to school; I was humbled. One of my callings was to give back. My sister and I embrace that responsibility and that stemmed from our humble beginnings.
Your story is incredible. You have such a need to give back, and I think a lot of people have that need, however, many people just don’t know how to execute on it.
A lot of your business is export business. What percentage of your business is actually in export?
We looked at the opportunities but we have decided to focus on the export market for a few reasons:
- Expose the fineness, uniqueness and the beautify of the Rwandan product
- Bilateral trade that was signed by the Rwandan government that we need to exploit to give more opportunity to Rwandan products.
- We wanted to transform the weaving hobby into an income generating activity while employing women to become entrepreneurs. We wanted to engage women and show them they could make business beyond their borders.
You made such an important comment about ‘making money and still having a positive impact.’ Often you see people ‘doing good’ but not making money. There is nothing wrong with making money, so you are profitable organization?
Yes we are profitable.
Which countries do you export to?
We export to the UK but through a chain store in the US.
Do you import export in Africa?
We import raw materials from in East Africa. We are trying to create so many unique products, so we try to use materials from Uganda. Rwanda is a small country so the raw materials are limited. We try to import from other countries so the women can compete easily with the other markets.
Do you export any of your finished products within Africa?
We do some exporting to Uganda, but only to small boutiques.
Some our seconds are bought and sent all over Eastern Africa. We don’t export our ‘seconds’ to the international market. The vast majority of our product goes to United States.
You mentioned your ‘second grade’ products. Lets say that there is a woman listening that wants to export her products, explain the grade that would have to be produced in order to be purchased?
- In the United States market, they have standard sizes. So for example if they want a 30 cm fruit bowl, it needs to be 30 cm.
- These are hand-made items and therefore sometimes they are 32cm or 28cm, so we have to find markets for those. They are very beautiful and good quality but the measurement is off.
- Those of high quality we sell to local or Regional markets if size is the only variation.
- Finishing of the product must be the highest quality. Workmanship must be the best.
The artisans are spread throughout Rwanda, how do you make sure that you get the highest quality that you are referring to?
We do a lot of training. We are sitting in the training room. We train how to produce the highest quality product. We try to simplify the workload for the women, particularly when it comes to measurement. We provide them with a piece of banana fiber string and measure 30cm, cut it and tell them to weave basket to that size. It helps understand the standards.
We also prepare the raw materials here and give them to the women so we don’t receive variation in colours or shapes.
We work hard to ensure anything that needs to be standardized is consistent and therefore controlled at our office and then distribute the raw materials to the producers.
We then show the producers what it should look like at the end.
Do they get paid per item they produce?
We wanted women and men to feel that they need to work hard, so we pay per piece. Some will make four pieces and some will make one. When you go into Rwandan villages weaving is not on a full time bases. They don’t have house workers, so they still have to do all their household responsibilities: cooking, gardening and cleaning.
Some others have made it their full-time profession. They produce a high turnover. They wake up in the morning and start weaving.
So what we have done is trained them along the way. From their earning we teach them on how can you pay someone to replace you on what you are to do in the garden, at home, so you pay them and then they make the highest turnover making baskets.
If they produce a piece and it is not to the highest caliber, what do you do with that piece?
It has been a challenge for us, but we have allowed the cooperatives to partner with the local stores in Rwanda. If it doesn’t fulfill our standard they are free to sell it in the local markets. They have signed partnership for local retailers.
Do the producers pay you for the materials when they sell them to local Retailers?
No, it has been a challenge. We have minimize rejects is 5% sometimes 0%. We really worked hard to develop a prototype.
When they sell to local markets they get less pay, so they thrive to have the best quality so we can export, as they will be provided with better pay.
I noticed on your website that it is written: “we help to promote women (and men).” I found this intriguing as you are supporting men and women in the rural communities. Now my understanding of Africa to date in the 14 countries I have travelled that women have a lot of responsibility in the home. Are women producing less than men because they have other responsibilities?
Men did not embrace weaving because it was for women. Traditionally if men were to weave a basket many would find this ridiculous.
What pushed men into weaving is the amount of money the women were making. The men were traditionally working in gardens and building sites, now you see women in these places too. The men’s saw they could make more money weaving.
The men became greedy and decided instead of working in someone else’s garden they decided to join the women’s group. At first it was hard for them to weave, but they learn quickly.
The man that are now producing baskets, are now producing more than women because they don’t have the responsibilities at home. While women are busy cooking for the family, the man is busy making the baskets.
We did a survey and we found where a family, husband and wife, were making baskets, their weekly income was the highest, but the man made more because the wife had to do all the cooking, washing, and cleaning.
When men weave, they do put a lot of effort in and they do earn more than women because they produce more pieces.
Once the men got rid of their ego and realized that weaving can make an income, then they were able to bring more money into the family?
Now having men weave, does that go against any of Gahaya’s objectives or vision as an organization?
There are many things we considered, particularly when it comes to cultural. Women were use to going to their husbands and asking for salt, soap and food. We wanted to relieve her from being shouted at or scolded because she is asking from someone who is not working.
Our goal was to empower the women. We embraced men, but if all men decided to weave I think we would tell them we would leave it to the women.
The fruits of this project are very enormous. We find women who were beaten in homes because of begging, but they are no longer begging because they have an income. This provides them the freedom. They are valued in the home, and their dignity is restored in their family.
I feel if you give more money to the men then women will still have the same problem. We want to ensure women continue to produce to provide them with the freedom and not the dependence to always be asking from their husbands. We want to prove to men that women are productive.
Provide a list of items that you need to consider if someone wants to engage in the export market.
- Where do you want to export?
- Conduct a market survey on Google: What are the trends in the Western market?
- You need to look relevant, colour trends?
- What are the cultures of the people you are going to sell to?
- What is the utility mode of the product? I.e. a basket
- Research on price
- Research customs, duty, regulations
- Research transport and the cost to get to that transport
Is there a place in Rwanda people can go to learn how to become export ready?
- There is the Rwandan Development Board (www.rdb.rw/)
- Ministry of Commerce of Trade
- United State Embassy there is a commercial office that can assist
- AGOA website – http://trade.gov/agoa/ here you will find all the info to send products to the Unites States.
There are policies in place and bilateral trade agreements exporters will want to be aware of. You will need to know trade regulations, taxation, standard, sanitary and customs requirements.
Did you have any challenges in exporting out of Rwanda?
- The first challenge was the grassroots organization structure. Now we have come up of working in cooperatives. So you are training people to work together.
- Another challenge is how to enter the US market. The starting point is always hard. We started going into to flee markets, exhibitions. You may have a good product, but getting it into the market can be a challenge.
- Our challenge was finding the money to go to the trade fairs in the US market so we could get buyers to come see our products.
By attending the trade fairs in the US, is that what open the market for you?
Who was your first customer in the United States?
Why do you think the Peace Baskets where so successful?
When we started branding the Rwandan Peace Baskets we based it on our history, where people were killing one another. We created this initiative as the peacemaker.
I believed women suffered more than every buddy. Man were killed, children where killed, women remained alone, but they still needed more peace, to settle, to have in their homes, to have in their mind. This basket became so successful because through weaving women started embracing forgiveness.
We had a cooperative where women were friends before the genocide, but families where torn apart. Women started asking forgiveness on behalf of their husbands. During the weaving session women would find forgiveness and many would communicate that forgiveness to the seekers.
The Basket has created a lot of peace in this country it has brought together both sides of the genocide.
In our weaving groups we have women who survived genocide, we have women who have husbands in prison, we have girls who lost everyone who are heading households. Through weaving we manage to have everyone under one roof sharing and working together.
Why do you think the Peace Basket has been successful as a product in the market?
Our market wanted to give back. People came to know Rwanda as a place of genocide. People felt so sorry for these people of Rwanda.
Any time I travelled and was promoting the baskets at Macy’s everyone felt they should own this basket to support Rwanda.
- We promoted the basked by talking about it in the market.
- We labeled the basket with our story – People valued the impact the basket was making in Rwanda.
- People felt by buying our baskets they were providing food for a family in Rwanda.
- People embraced it as a corporate social responsibility initiative.
- They felt connected to the producer.
- They felt that they were buying it, but they are buying it for a cause.
Now that we are in the competitive market, people are buying them because of the high quality. Now people buy for the uniqueness of the product. There is now more appreciation of the workmanship of the baskets.
There are a lot of African countries that export baskets. What do you do to maintain your customer relationships so those customers continue to buy from you?
We have been exporting since 2005.
- We try to move with the trends. What is trend in spring is not the same as fall.
- We try to create something new.
- We try to diversify while using the same technique. We consider what will sell in the market.
How is your jewelry doing in the international market?
We did well with Kate Spade New York. She bought high-quality beadwork.
Rwandan women have a way of weaving; that is why we call ourselves the center of gifted hands. I think when you look at the workmanship you can differentiate our quality.
When you go to a high-end boutique like Kate Spade New York, you are looking at a product that will retail over $100. You are expecting high quality clientele. If you are putting something in Oprah magazine, it better be good. We focus on trends and the quality of the product.
What do you do personally to ensure you have a connection between you and the buyer?
We continually communicate with our clients.
Update them on what they have done with us. If they bought from a particular group of weavers, I will update them on how that group is performing, especially what they have earned from them. I always share stories of the impact of their business on Rwandan communities. Which motives them that they are changing lives.
I would communicate at the end of the seasons.
We share success stories in the communities. For example: someone may have been able to put electricity in his or her house because they have sold baskets, we would share that story with Macy’s. Or if someone was able to buy a cow, we share that story.
How far ahead are you producing your product so that it arrives in the market when the trend is actually relevant?
As soon as the ‘spring’ items are in the store, I try to get the colours for the next spring. At that time I also try to interest the buyer in the following year.
One of the keys in dealing with our buyers, we are always thinking ahead of them, as they have a lot of people they buy from.
When we ship the fall product, we also send the spring samples with them.
Where do you learn the trends?
- Through the partners we work with, they share the colours.
- There is also trend website, (Google “colour trends” there is a lot of information there), that provides the new updated trends for the season.
- Kate Spade New York will have a specialist in anthropology create her colours. They will then provide us with colour charts for the year ahead.
- Each customer will have different colour palettes that they chose from even though there are some common trends.
- You need to look at our client’s clients. Who are they? For example, are they into bohemian type of fashion? Then look into those trends. The Hippie type, they don’t tend to like really bright colours.
What would be the biggest obstacle you have had in producing your products and how did you overcome it?
- Building the production cycle. Where you have to deal with the producers.
- Conforming to standards in the US, especially when it came to the raw materials. You need to prove a certificate of authenticity. I did not know that.
- Packaging was a challenge. We used big boxes that would no longer do. We had to come to terms that we needed to make our own boxes.
- Finances, it was challenging.
- We did not know that a product had to be accompanied with UPC barcode (Universal Product Code) and story card. There are a lot of things involved in the export market that you need to adhere to.
- We share with our clients that we can’t print UPC barcodes in Rwanda. So clients do it for us and send them to us to attach to the product.
- We try to have women that live near each other to be trained together. The first challenge was getting women to come together on both sides of the genocide. That pushed us behind because many villages did not want to work together as they had so few survivors. However, with the Rwandan message of Unity and Reconciliation, it helped us to get people to work together.
What was the biggest human resource challenge and how did you deal with that?
Government institutions didn’t know what export market was. We would tell them we are selling the product at $12 and we are paying a producer $8. The government would not look at the cost of doing business in the US. If people were to look at our customers’ website they would see the price for a basket would be more than double what we paid them to produce the it, for example $40 to $42. Most of them felt that we were exploiting the workers.
- We had to educate the government institutions on how every step works.
- In the US some retailers will multiple their purchase price by four. Having a story in New York wouldn’t be the same as having a store in Rwanda.
- We had to share the distribution cycle and the tendency to mark up:
- Producer would sell the product for $12, the Wholesaler would sell product for $24, and the retailers would sell the product for $48.
- The government researched how product distribution worked to gain an understanding of the market.
- We are transparent with the producers through the entire production schedule. We pay our producers the most per product in the country.
- In Rwanda people get paid between $1 – $2 per day. If we give $8 what would it mean to their lives? We never considered paying the Rwandan minimum wage. We always wanted to beat the minimum wage.
- We stay in business because our producers take the highest percentage of what we make.
Would you recommend exporting, as you said there is a lot of work involved, is it worth it?
Yes because there is high volume in the American market. For me, I like to exploit opportunities and not only will the producer get more money, but also the government will increase their foreign exchange.
Once you penetrate the market and stabilizes it is a market that provides an opportunity to plan for the future.
If there were three things that make you successful as an exporter what would they be?
- Paying a fare wage to the producers
- The quality of the product
In your office you have pictures of you with some fairly prominent individuals in government both in the United States and Rwanda do to your public relations efforts. How important of a role has public relations been in the success of your organization?
I think it has been very important. If you look at President Bill Clinton there is a statement he said in the New York Times and when he appeared on the Martha Stewart show: “If everyone owned a Rwandan Peace Basket it would mean a lot to the people of Rwanda.”
The President of Rwanda, when you look at our National Seal, they put in a basket. When we were launching this initiative in Macy’s people thought I was crazy to ask for the President to come. But he came with me because of the value the baskets were doing to bring for the people of Rwanda.
When he became involved it gave it more importance. If you just look at me as Janet, I would probably be meeting the store manager. At the time they took me to the President of the store. It had a huge impact to see the President of Rwanda to help us launch a small initiative in Macy’s.
I have noticed all the bills at restaurants are delivered in baskets…
We advocated for those baskets, as in the past all the bill folds where delivered in plastic trays made from China. If people outside Rwanda are embracing the beauty of our products, why not Rwandans?
We give the free breadbaskets to Serena Hotel in Rwanda to show them the quality of the baskets. They come back to buy them. Most people didn’t understand the uniqueness of our product.
Serena Hotels use to bring in designers from outside the hotel, but if you walk into it now you will see our large baskets. We convinced them we can do a great job, and now they have pride when someone asks where the baskets came from they can say from Rwandan women.
Public Relations is key to any initiative, not only business initiatives.
I volunteer everywhere with our baskets to get known.
It is one thing to ask a President to come with you to the United States; it is another to convince them to go with you. How did you achieve that?
We went through the proper government institutions and wrought a letter asking him to be at the launch. Our President is a visionary President. I think we all gained our values because of his leadership. Before women in Rwanda were property. We would not own anything, we would not do business; women would always be under the man. Our President believes in equal rights in this country. I think it was one of the opportunities to show he is empowering women. We went through proper channels.
I was asked why it would be good fro the President to attend the launch, and I responded that it would give it more value to the relationship.
What advice can you provide to a business owner to implement an effective Public Relations initiative?
Implement any idea you have – talk about it. Be free and say what you thing, share what you want to achieve. Use the partnerships and nurture them.
Are your baskets labeled in the Serena Hotel?
No, that is one of the challenges with the bigger brands is getting you products labeled. For example with Kate Spade New York, she will say on her tag, “Made by Kate Spade New York, by the women at Gahaya Links. Some will use own labels and will just say: “Made in Rwanda.”
What do you think has been the biggest impact you have made in your career?
The biggest impact is In Unity and reconciliation of Rwandans. Also we helped restore the dignity of Rwandan women and their values.
Also women who have been raped, the widows, women living with HIV most of them have felt a sense of tomorrow. Now they eat well and they are able to take medications. Every time I meet them I feel proud of myself because I realize that these women are living better because of our initiative.
If there were one thing you can attribute your success to, what would it be?
My humble beginnings.
What is the most challenging aspect of your career?
To balance between family and the business. Sometimes I give a lot of energy to the women in the business and I don’t seem to give enough to my children. I do a lot of travelling, so I have to leave my children, but they also survive because of what I do.
You have five children, so who takes care of them when you travel?
My sister Joy. Joy and I are sisters, business partners, and best friends. She has been the strength of my family when I am not here.
You are the public face of the company, can you explain how that works since you and your sister started this company together?
Joy’s specially is more product development and I am more the marketing and public relations side of the business.
Do you ever feel that Joy doesn’t get the recognition?
We agree who does what. We all have our strengths in the company. She doesn’t have the need to be the front and center. Our goal is to keep the women working and for the company to be busy
From a personal perspective, what do you think was the biggest obstacle to get to this point? How did you overcome it?
Finances. We didn’t have collateral. As we moved along more people believed in us including banks. Eventually they allowed us to borrow from them.
Where did you get the money at the beginning of your business?
We used our savings. We worked within what we had.
Have you ever implemented an initiative that did not work? What would you do differently?
Yes, when we tried to produce silk.
I love fashion and thought we should use silk to make products. We invested a lot of money in making handlooms; I made samples. It could not work because the finances required through the production cycle were too much.
I still have the dream of making homemade fabrics out of silk, but I am still debating how to do it with the finances we have and the products we presently develop.
Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of yourself when you push the edge of your comfort zone). What is something that you are uncomfortable doing, but you need to continue to do, in order to make you as successful as you are?
When buyers decide for you. Sometimes they will decide the prices. I need to accept some situations in order to keep the women working, although I am not comfortable doing it.
Negotiations are a challenge.
If there was one thing you would do differently in the pursuit of your success what would it be?
Not to carry the burden of the company alone (with my sister Joy). I would hire people to run the company so we can develop product and market it.
What does success mean to you?
Leadership means achieving what I planned and having an impact. It is a collective initiative and impact.
How would you define leadership?
It is involved in everything you do and how you do it best.
What three Leadership lessons would you give to someone who leads a project, team or initiative?
- You don’t need to be a ‘big boss’ to be recognized as a leader. Team leadership is the best.
- You need to embrace everyone’s views
- You need to be at the bottom, not at the top
Lets talk about leading from the bottom not the top. You mentioned prior to the interview about working with the women in production. How do you make them feel comfortable working with you?
I relate to them easily. I crack jokes with them. I complement them. I tell them my story. I share what went wrong in my life. Women were hesitant to share after the genocide. I tell them I am single mother, that I have no husband. I eat with them, I share drink with them, I hold their children, and I visit with them in their homes. I am one of them. I ask them about their family. I open my home to them.
You also call your producers, partners. Which is a philosophy of how you conduct business.
They know they are part of this company, and they are the key players of what we are doing.
What do you want your leadership legacy to be?
I want people to emulate what I did. They have started; they would say I am doing this because Madame Nkubana said not to fear ourselves we need to work hard. I want to create a legacy of giving back.
What is next for you?
I would like to do some real estate and then retire.
What would love to do that you haven’t done yet.
Start a foundation based on my beliefs in Christianity. I want to retire and speak about Christianity.
Q. What advice would you give to your 13yr. old daughter?
To be humble
Q. What do you wish you were told at 10 years old?
We missed several things because our parents never went to school. So we didn’t have career guidance. I wish my parents had been educated to provide some of that career guidance.
Words of Wisdom for African women
We are very proactive. We are strong women. We are great managers. We are great policy makers. We can be a great force for Africa.
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