It’s a Friday afternoon. About 2pm, Immanuel Simugomwa, a 28-year-old former orphan that has through World Vision support achieved most of his dreams is busy working alongside other members of his cooperative. He is the president of Twitezimbere, a cooperative union of 10 former World Vision Rwanda supported Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC), through Nyaruguru, a US supported ADP. Twitezimbere produces leather products such as shoes, handbags, sandals, jackets, belts, mobile phone covers and key holders.
Born in 1983 from a small village of Sinayi, Kiboshi sector, Nyaruguru district, Immanuel never thought his life would ever be this good. He was raised in a family of nine children. Four girls and five boys. He is the last born in his family. He pauses, shakes his head as he recalls the poverty his family went through during and after the genocide. “We were poor even before, but the 1994 genocide made things worse. My father died when I was seven, leaving us with mother who was unemployed and a housewife,” he explains. The family entirely depended on subsistence farming, mostly growing sweet potatoes and beans. They used a small piece of land about one hectare for all their agricultural activities.
“Every day was a hustle for us. I woke up in at 5:30 each morning with my brother and sisters. I remember the time I was about 12. We went digging; each had his or her own hoe. They varied in size according to our age. Some would go digging, some would run to fetch water about 400 metres from home and we would all go to school after settling all daily requirements at home,” Immanuel says. His family owned five cows. All the cows were confiscated and taken by the Interahamwe, a group of militia responsible for the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Although they were lucky not to lose any of their nuclear family members during the genocide, all their property was taken and others destroyed.
“My mother died one year after the genocide in 1995. Life became worse. Just like all my brothers and sisters, I dropped out of school in grade 6 and did not have a chance to go back,” he sadly explains. As a child, Immanuel had a dream of becoming a secondary school teacher. Secondly, school teachers were respected people in his community. He however realised he could not achieve his dream in 1994 after he dropped out of school.
After the death of his mother to malaria, life became more difficult. They ate one meal a day, sometimes only sweet potatoes. He remembers the time they used salty hot water as a sauce. They could not afford to buy cooking oil. He was one day persuaded by some of his childhood friends to move with them to the capital of Kigali to survive by begging on streets. He resisted the temptation and stayed in his village. “I tried everything to survive. I could not depend on any of my elder brothers and sister because none of them was doing better financially. I repaired the old bicycle that belonged to my father and used it to transport bananas from remote parts of our village to the main road, where buyers from the capital Kigali would find them. The banana owners would then give me little money that helped me to survive. I got about 1,000 Rwanda francs [1.6 US dollars] on my lucky day,” he says.
In 1998, Immanuel was enrolled in the OVC programme run by World Vision Rwanda. At that time, he started looking at his future differently. He was one of the first 20 vulnerable children in his area that benefited from World Vision Rwanda’s OVC project. World Vision Rwanda worked with local leaders in the area to identify and support OVCs from the most vulnerable households and Immanuel was one of them. They were trained on leather works, mainly on locally producing leather materials such as shoes, handbags, sandals and jackets among other leather products. After the training, trainees were encouraged to form cooperative groups so as to start implementing what they had learned.
Immanuel was one of the best students and later in 2007 was requested by World Vision Rwanda to be one of the facilitators at another training that enrolled 20 more OVCs from his and neighbouring areas. According to Nyaruguru ADP manager Francois Uwumukiza, in addition to the training provided trainees were provided equipment to help start work. “We provided shoe sewing machines, raw materials including quality cowhides, dye, threads, glue and other chemicals used in the processing of cowhides,” Francois explains. Immanuel and his group members used the equipment and the raw material given to them by World Vision Rwanda to produce their first products in 2007. “We were all eager to see our first work. We started by making leather sandals and handbags. They were not perfect but seeing what we could produce at our first trial gave us courage to go on,” he explains.
Through income from sold products, Immanuel managed to buy himself one Friesian cow. He also bought a used motorcycle and hired someone to use it as a taxi. Since there are very few vehicles and taxies in his village, motorcycles are the major means of transport and they get many customers. The motorcycles gets him 4,000 Rwandan francs [7 US dollars] daily. According to Emanuel, all group members work hard each day to produce various leather products. They sell, put the money on the cooperative’s bank account and then share the profit at the end of each month. On average, each member gets 100,000 Rwandan francs [170US dollars] per month, more than a month salary of a primary school teacher in rural schools of Rwanda.
“We buy each quality cowhide at 7000 Rwf. We do the processing and produce 10 to 11 pairs of shoes out of one cowhide. Each finished shoe is them sold at 25,000Rwf. His Friesian cow produced four times. He sold two of the cows, added the money on what he had saved from the motorcycles contribution, and from his monthly share, bought a plot at Kiboshi trading Centre, Nyaruguru district and built a nice four-roomed and iron sheet roofed house. He says his house, according to Nyaruguru district authority, is worth 14m Rwanda francs [250,00US dollars. “The district authority wants to use the land on which my house is build. They are trying to re-allocate us to another piece of land 500 metres from our current location and they will give me 14 million Rwandan francs. Sometimes it is hard for me to believe I have property worth millions. I’m grateful to God for using World Vision to make me who I’m today.” he explain
Immanuel dropped out of school before he even completed primary school. His current success and hard work however, has got him an educated wife, a primary school teacher. He is a happily married man with one child. He says he wants two more children and is sure that he will be able give them good medical care and to take them to good schools. According to Immanuel, the demand for their quality products is more than what they can supply. “Customers love our products, they book before we even finish working on them. They like the products because they know are original and made out of pure leather,” he explains.
Their potential customers include government officials like the district mayor, sector leaders, church leaders, teachers, medical staff in the area and residents of Nyaruguru district. “We were recently recognised by the Rwandan Ministry of Trade and Industries as the best small scale producers of leather products in Nyaruguru district. We have participated in a number of trade fairs in the capital Kigali, and ministry has given us a place in the expo-ground in Kigali, where small scale manufacturers exhibit and sell their products,” he explains. Although Twitezimbere cooperative union members have not yet succeeded in meeting the high demand from their customers, they are optimistic they will get one more shoe sewing machine in the future to help them increase production. Immanuel proudly says “The future is bright and the sky is the limit for me and the rest of Twitezimbere cooperative members.”
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