Our goal as a development organization working with women’s cooperatives in Rwanda is to build their capacity in order to help the cooperatives sustainably grow their businesses. The underlying idea behind capacity building is to help the cooperatives become independent, so they no longer rely on our organization, Hands of Mothers (HOM), for support. Throughout the summer we have implemented a series of trainings and workshops designed to empower the women to create better quality products, find new clients and markets, and become more effective leaders in managing and organizing their cooperative. However, helping to build a sustainable organization from the ground up is particularly challenging when dependency becomes entrenched through an organization’s program design and implementation.
In the past, HOM has sought to help the cooperatives it works with in a way that fostered dependency. Born out of a desire to help, HOM managed cooperative organization and finances, performed tasks for cooperative members when illness or the challenges of poverty prevented the women from selling their products, and focused more on finding customers for the cooperatives’ products than on empowering the women to learn how to find clients themselves. While helping the women in the cooperatives succeed has always been the ultimate goal, the way this goal has been pursued poorly misaligned with the long term goal of sustainability.
As the summer progressed, this mismatch between what our HOM team wanted to accomplish and how HOM had been conducting its relationship with the cooperatives in the past became more and more apparent. For example, Ejo Hazaza (the cooperative that makes jewelry) told us they were interested in switching gears in order to become an agricultural cooperative. Their idea was to raise and sell goats and cultivate mushrooms. They told us their plan at our weekly meeting, and we told them this sounded like an interesting idea and that we were on board to help them accomplish their goal.
The following week when we returned for our next discussion, they asked us when we were going to buy them the goats. Naturally, we were quite confused, as we never told the cooperative we would buy goats for them. However, because HOM routinely did things for the cooperative in the past, the women thought that when we said we would help them with their idea that this meant we would buy the goats for them. We told the women this was not the case, and we emphasized how going forward the relationship between HOM and Ejo Hazaza would be different – we would no longer do tasks for the cooperative. Rather, we told them our role was to empower them to take ownership of projects and tasks themselves.
At first we found the misunderstanding about the goats startling! However, it is truly not all that surprising given how HOM interacted with the cooperative in the past. As the issue of dependency has become more apparent to us, we have doubled down on our efforts to build the cooperatives’ capacity going forward.