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Follow the Data Podcast Episode 17: Rwandan Women Rebuilding Their Lives – Brick by Brick

Women’s Opportunity Center in Kayonza, Rwanda

Our newest episode of Follow the Data features a conversation between Verna Eggleston, who leads Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Women’s Economic Development program, and Joy Rwamwenge, the director of the Women’s Opportunity Center in Kayonza, Rwanda. And at the end of the show, we also speak with Laurie Adams, the President and CEO of Women for Women International, tells listeners how to get involved with the organization.

Women for Women International opened its Women’s Opportunity Center in Kayonza in 2013. The facility is a six-classroom campus, with a bed & breakfast, restaurant, community garden and a local coffee café.  The goal of the center aligns with the Rwanda government’s overarching 2020 vision – to create new economic opportunities and strengthen social infrastructure for rural women. By bridging the gap between urban buyers and rural farmers, the center provides space for education, business development, entrepreneurial activities, and networking.

This podcast also marks a special milestone: our 10th anniversary of partnering with Women for Women International to promote economic independence for women and their families in post-conflict Rwanda, Congo, Sudan and Nigeria. To date, investments have had an impact on more than 700,000 people; including the enrollment of 105,000 children in primary school.

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We hope you enjoy this episode. Follow us on Twitter @BloombergDotOrg for information about our next episode. Until then, keep following the data!


Full Transcript

KATHERINE OLIVER: Welcome to Follow the Data, I’m your host, Katherine Oliver.

This episode features a conversation between Verna Eggleston, who leads Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Women’s Economic Development program, and Joy Rwamwenge, the director of the Women’s Opportunity Center in Kayonza, Rwanda.

In the wake of the genocide in 1994, the Rwandan government announced the 2020 vision plan – a plan to transform the country and lift it out of poverty – elevating all of their citizens to middle class. The plan aims to develop good governance models, expand agriculture practices for the international market, and invest in human capital, including health and education.

By supporting the government’s vision through our non-profit partner Women for Women International, among others, we’ve invested in more than 80,000 women in Rwanda, and more than 168,000 women in the Sub-Saharan region. These are women who have now gained new job skills, knowledge about health and wellness and learned how to be decision-makers in their families and communities through our training program. To date, our investments have had an impact on more than 700,000 people; including the enrollment of 105,000 children in primary school

This year, we celebrate the 10th anniversary of our work with Women for Women International to promote economic “independence” for women and their families in post-conflict Rwanda, Congo, Sudan and Nigeria.

Today we will focus on our work in Rwanda. We are reminded that the start of our partnership was not easy. Our partners conducted training in open fields, or behind the gates that surrounded the Women for Women office.

With our support, Women for Women International opened its Women’s Opportunity Center in Kayonza in 2013. The facility is a six classroom campus, with a bed & breakfast, restaurant, community garden and a local coffee café.  The goal of the center aligns with the government’s overarching 2020 vision; Creating new economic opportunities and strengthening social infrastructure for rural women. By bridging the gap between urban buyers and rural farmers, the center provides space for business development, entrepreneurial activities, and building networks. The Center was designed by award-winning architect Sharon Davis Design and features circular pavilions as classrooms inspired by traditional Rwandan meeting spaces. And these pavilions were not only constructed by women in our program, but it’s constructed of bricks made by the women too.

To share more about the progress taking place at the Women’s Opportunity Center every day, I’ll turn it over to Joy and Verna.

VERNA EGGLESTON:  I’m so excited to have the director of the Women’s Opportunity Center from Women for Women International in Rwanda, in Kayonza here today, especially right on the heels of November 28, our official 10-year anniversary of Bloomberg Philanthropy’s first arrival in Rwanda. Just to put that in perspective a little bit, we were invited into Rwanda in 2007 by the founder for Women for Women International Zainab Salbi, who asked that we join her and Women for Women in assisting the government in Rwanda on their 2020 vision plan.  And when I arrived in Kayonza, not knowing anything at all about Rwanda, this beautiful mass of land, and Women for Women said they wanted to grow pineapples, and I knew absolutely not a thing about pineapples, and here was all this land.  The government had made a commitment.  They were going to match the Bloomberg grant to grow pineapples on this massive set of land, and here we were.  The thing that struck me the most were the women. The women who welcomed us. I had heard before that anytime Zainab Salbi arrived and the staff for Women for Women arrived, there was this very natural singing that went on and there was joy, — to copy your name, Joy.


EGGLESTON:  That’s how I was welcomed into Kayonza, and here we are 10 years later and you’re the head of this six classroom facility, is it?

RWAMWENGE:  No, it’s seven, seven pods.

EGGLESTON:  Seven classrooms, a bed and breakfast, a full restaurant, community garden, a farm, um, basket weaving, training in collaboration with the Rwandan government — way beyond anything we imagined, clearly way beyond pineapples, a store.  So, you just joining Women for Women, tell me how it was that day when you showed up at that site, especially being Rwandese?  What’d it feel like?

RWAMWENGE:  It had actually been my dream to have something similar to that.  I had always, you know, dreamt a hub, business incubation where you can have people, entrepreneurs – – a large space where everybody can do business activities and be groomed there, so my first appearance at the women’s opportunity center was very fulfilling. Getting there, seeing women who have moved from, devastating incidents, singing – – by the way they still sing.  They sit together and they sing, and I’m like, oh, this is quite fulfilling.  Probably the bit that you didn’t know is, um, I did not grow up in Rwanda because of the past and I had always wished I should go home and contribute something, and I’m like, I don’t think the urban area is my place.  I better go to rural the area and see what goes on there.  I have been all my life in the urban centers, you know, that’s where I have lived.  That’s where I have worked, and now I’m back home in Rwanda.  I should go back home to the rural areas and see what exactly happens there.  And I get there and I find there is this center, the Women’s Opportunity Center and just the word opportunity where you can find all the opportunities where you can offer all the opportunities.  I’m like, I think I’ve landed in the right place.  So, I get there.  I see the green.  I see the, I see the bricks, which I’m not used to.  I’m used to state of the art buildings, and at first it looked a little bit devastating, in that it’s new but when I got in there and I saw the women and how happy they are, I’m thinking I can add some change to these women.  I can add what I know to these women.  It was, to me, very fulfilling, I must say.

EGGLESTON:  So where did you grow up, if not in Rwanda.

RWAMWENGE:  I grew up in Uganda.  My parents stayed in Uganda.  They lived in Uganda. They left in the early fifties when there was a bit of disturbance, and then we were all born, in Uganda, in foreign country and we grew up there.  I studied there, and then when I left Uganda, because then I could not come back home, as yet, I went to other countries.

EGGLESTON:  Did the women who come to the program, do they still talk about the war and the conflict, or have they moved past the war and the conflict?

RWAMWENGE:  When you listen to them talk, they literally don’t talk about the war.  The only time you hear them talk about the war is in April when there is what you call, Kwibuka commemoration.  We have a whole month of remembering, to remember what happened in those days.  That’s when they relate their stories, and you can see the women have moved on.  Other than that period, you are, you never heard them talk about the past.  What they do is sit, think, do their weaving, do their artwork, you know, get involved in production, the production unit.  You never get to hear them talk about their past.  The only time they will talk about the past is when we give them that platform that must take place in Rwanda every April.  We give them the platform to talk just in case there are others who need to talk out and, and heal.

EGGLESTON:  One of the reasons why we’re so excited about Women for Women International at Bloomberg and the work of the Women’s Opportunity Center is because when we arrived in 2007 — even though you were there before and you introduced us — we felt like we were there with you side-by-side during the development.  The history of the work and the mission of Women for Women International, being an organization that works in post-conflict regions and sometimes in regions where conflict is still going on.  You know, to-date Bloomberg Philanthropies has invested in over 168,000 women working with Women for Women and other partners, but in Rwanda alone, we’ve invested in over 80,000 women.

So here we are in Rwanda.  We’ve been there for 10 years.  We’re celebrating our anniversary.  It’s a country that’s way past conflict.  The women don’t discuss conflict now, as you say.  Where does an organization like Women for Women and the work that you’re doing at the Women’s Opportunity Center fit in the larger country plan.  As your president says, the entire country will be middle class.  It’s a country of economic development, a country of job creation, where does the Women’s Opportunity Center fit today?

RWAMWENGE: I think as you are aware, the kind of population we have in Rwanda is not really small.  Women’s Opportunity Center could have affected the community around and let me say, we are not yet really there.  We still have to do much more than what we have done.  We have affected the community around, but Women’s Opportunity Center seems to stand out as the only center that is doing what we do in the country and I think we could affect many more women than we are doing now.  Practically we’ve done a lot, and I must say thank you for that, but I think there’s a wider community we need to reach and bring them to the center.  They come see what is done there and probably go out and do the same.  And I think it’s high time, uh, work or the Women’s Opportunity Center is replicated in the rest of the country.  Since it stands out as a model that has not been done before, I think we could replicate it in other districts so that we are not only affecting the Kayonza community but a wider community, the entire country and probably even go beyond the borders of Rwanda and affect other women in other countries and I think this is how Women for Women International would come in.  They already acquainted with the model, how it has been run and it is a sexist story, for sure, so it could be improved on and let it stand out more than it is now as we continue to polish it, then we can replicate.    I think, this is what I think we could do to affect more lives.  We cannot just affect 4,000 or even more or even 80,000 but we can affect many more lives.

When you think about the government of Rwanda, with Vision 2020 where we are creating 200,000 off-farm jobs — of course not only for women, but for every other person — I think Women’s Opportunity Center should stand out as a model which does that, and as we create more jobs for the women, we graduate them and they’re getting out into, into the community to start their own businesses, employ people.  I think we’ll be able to work together with the government to achieve, the government goals.

EGGLESTON:  Well it certainly has gotten the attention of the First Lady.  From what I can understand, she’s brought other First Ladies from other countries, and she considers it to be her diamond in Rwanda, and also I think the First Daughter visited the Women’s Opportunity Center and took a weaving class and wanted to stay, but the detail, I think was too large to accommodate her there. But tell me about a day in the life of a woman coming to the Women’s Opportunity Center.  If I came to the Women’s Opportunity Center and I was a part of Women for Women International, what is my day like?

RWAMWENGE:  To me, there are two aspects.  There is the woman from the community and then there is a visitor. We’ll start off with the woman from the community.  Very early in the morning, you arrive at the gates of the Women’s Opportunity Center and the first person you meet is this rural woman holding her materials and coming to weave.  Others holding their tablets coming to paint imigongo, others walking in, with cans of milk from their cows, bringing to the production unit, others coming to work in the restaurant, others coming for some campaign, nutrition campaign, others coming for parents evening, other coming from HIV AIDS campaign.  There are a number of activities that take place there.  It’s, by the way, quite a vibrant place.  You’d like it because sometimes you do not know what is going on because there is someone singing on this side, others are working and they’re talking about the new English words that they have learned.  They are saying “see you tomorrow” and “it’s early in the morning”.  Others are saying “how are you” because those are their new discoveries.  So, you walk into the Opportunity Center and you met with those kind of people, and it doesn’t matter how they dress.  Some of them are not dressed smart as you want to imagine.  Others are dressed smart.  Others have some uniform and others are casual and those are the women from the rural area coming to do their thing.

EGGLESTON:  And what about the men?

RWAMWENGE:  We have the men also walking in with their books \coming to the men’s engagement meeting, escorting, some of them come with their wives.  Others, they don’t have wives there.  Some of those ladies who come to do their basket weaving are wives, are spouses to these gentlemen, so the men go their direction and the women go their direction and they’re in a small cluster having their meeting, talking about their issues, and how they can empower other men in the community and then the women go their direction and they are weaving.  Now, that is one group of people.

And then we have visitors coming from all over.  Some are local visitors, government officials, like you mentioned there are times when the whole place is surrounded, being guarded because the first ladies are coming from wherever, so we’ve come to put up with all kinds of people that visit the center. We have the First Lady coming in and the environment then is different and we have, the First Lady from Ethiopia visiting and went all over, talked to everybody, but of course the security has to be tight.  So, that is another day at the center.

And there are times, this happens all the time we have tourists coming, en route Akagera coming to see what happens there and then they go to the ladies and they are taught how to weave baskets.  Sometimes they request if they can be taken to the farm to go and uproot carrots, or our tour guides and our tour guides are graduates of Women for Women International, have to take them to the farms.  They uproot carrots, to them it’s fun.  Now, the women with the cans going down to the production unit, the women are busy, boiling milk to start making yogurt.  They make yogurt and sometimes you find the women are busy packaging yogurt.  This is actually handmade yogurt and it’s hand-packaged, so it keeps the women also quite busy.  And after that, you see that the tourists have gone around and they got the gift shop.  Our gift shop is where the women graduates or the women that sit to weave, after they finish doing their products, they take the products to the gift shop.  To sell to whoever would wish to buy their products.

So, basically, in a nut shell, that is what takes places, on a daily basis  at the Women’s Opportunity Center. If we have, let me call them special guests, special tours who have made arrangements with us before, the women will parade.  We have a dancing troupe that parades outside and they beat drums and they dance and they sing.  Most cases they would want even the people that come to visit to be part of the dancing so they always have this Rwandan attire, which we call mushanana and they dress you up.  You get dancing as well and they forget, that’s what I was saying to you.  They may not show you that they cried before.  They may have wounds in their hearts.  Unless you poke and tell them to talk, they will not talk about it, but they are healing and moving on.

EGGLESTON:  Let me ask you one final question.  So, this Women’s Opportunity Center, what many don’t know who come is, is that it actually started out as one of the work activities, and when I look at the building when I visited, and I look at those over 500,000 hand pressed bricks that those women made, so their hands are in the building and for them to be part of the construction of it and when I look at some of the old photos and I see women carrying steel beams, every time I arrive at that center and just knowing that the tile on the floor of the center comes from Congo and the bricks in the wall of the center comes from the women in Rwanda and building peace at the same time while building a building, I’m just inspired, being a woman, but more importantly, in over four decades doing work in human development I never in my entire felt a spirit that is, just collected there.  And every time I come to Rwanda, I have to visit the Women’s Opportunity Center because I feel just overwhelming pride, just as a woman.  And you final comment, how does it make you feel when you walk through those doors every day?

RWAMWENGE:  I feel so fulfilled.  I feel I have added value to a woman.  Because, one of the things I have realized is, when you have empowered a woman, you have actually touched more lives than, than you actually imagine, and I really feel fulfilled because I’m not only adding value to a woman, I’m adding value to the entire household.  I’m adding value to the community.  I’m adding value to the entire government of Rwanda because the government of Rwanda has a policy which they are running with currently, with is the Made in Rwanda Campaign, and that is all done at the center, and probably something I need to mention is that we, we look to the future to do much more than what we are doing now.  We’ve talked about weaving.  We’ve talked about imigongo, the paintings, we’ve talked about the production unit where we are producing yogurt, we have the restaurant, we have the hospitality part.  We have the roadside café.  I mean, that is what goes on.  We have the social aspect that is part, of the woman.  Basically, then men’s engagement so that we are doing a holistic approach.

However, I don’t think we have done all that it takes to empower a woman and there are other aspects that we need to look at, to align ourselves with what the government is doing and one of the things that I want to see happen personally, and I think the, the entire Women for Women International, is to put up a sewing center, and I think when we put up a sewing center, we shall accommodate more women, or we shall embrace more women.  We shall create more jobs for women in the community, and as we do that, we are touching more lives, their household, the community and being in alignment with what the government of Rwanda is doing.

And besides the sewing center, we plan on having an information center which, of course we’ve already taught them skills on how to weave baskets, to do imigongo.  We have the men’s engagement, but we can do much more, as we all know that now we are talking of a tech world.  We cannot leave our women not to go that direction, as well.  I think it’s also very important that we have an information center at their level.  We built it slowly by slowly until they also, you know, belong and identify themselves with, with the tech world. The other thing that we, we think we should concentrate on is to build strong partnerships.  We’ve already started building strong partnerships with the government of Rwanda.  We work very closely with Rwanda development board, especially in attracting tourism, cultural tourism, the Made in Rwanda campaign.  Recently we were in a meeting with the Rwanda Development Board in the eastern province where they want to deepen investment in the eastern province, so we were invited as the Women’s Opportunity Center, so basically, we want to strengthen those partnerships, and of course, those are already existing we strengthen.  Those that are not existing we, you know, we forge new partnerships, and I think basically that’s it.


RWAMWENGE:  We have big plans.  They look ambitious, but I think we can also partner with other development partners, like the government, especially the government as they talk about, you know, creating 200,000 jobs.



EGGLESTON:  Well, on behalf of Bloomberg Philanthropies and myself, I want to take the opportunity to thank Women for Women International for being a 10-year partner, for allowing us, in partnership to touch more than, and invest in more than 160,000 women’s lives, with a secondary impact of over 700,000 of their family members.  We’re very proud to say, at Bloomberg, that we have been a part of touching a million, and maybe millions more will come.  Thank you so much.

RWAMWENGE:  Thank you so much, Verna.

OLIVER: Joy and Verna were joined by Laurie Adams the President and CEO of Women for Women International. We used this opportunity ask Laurie how our listeners can get involved with the organization.

EGGLESTON:  We’re very fortunate today to also have Laurie Adams, the new CEO and President of Women for Women International joining us here today.  I don’t know how new you are at this point.  I think beyond a year, there’s no more newness, but you know, you’re part of this family.  We heard from Joy today and we still here at Bloomberg. First of all I have to say, Laurie, again, I thank Women for Women for partnering with us for 10 years and introducing us to these incredible countries, Rwanda, Congo, Sudan and Nigeria and us having an opportunity to touch so many lives.

After hearing this, I’m sure people are going to want to know, how do I become involved?  I mean, even how do I get to see the Women’s Opportunity Center, but more importantly, how do I get involved in this organization, Women for Women.  Can you first tell us the, the many countries you’re involved in overall as an organization, but more importantly, tell us how we can do more?

LAURIE ADAMS:  Thank you very much, Verna, and let me say first of all the 10-year partnership we’ve had with Bloomberg Philanthropies has been truly transformative.  With your support, we’ve been able to reach almost half a million women and that’s across places like Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan and Congo, Northern Nigeria where conflict is ongoing and women are still deeply affected by violence from the conflict, but also the endemic conflict and violence that is in women’s lives, which we’re now hearing out here in the U.S., as well, of course, so in eight countries, most recently the Kurdistan region of Iraq where we’ve been able to open a program to support Syrian refugees, survivors of the Yizadi genocide, if you remember about three years ago, an entire population of people were almost wiped out for having different religious beliefs, for being different, and so we serve those populations as well.

I’ve been at Women for Women for two years now, and every day, I still say thank you.  I’ve been working in no-profits doing development and humanitarian work for almost 30 years, 15 of those in Africa in 22 different countries, and every single day, I say thank you for this organization.  It was created by Zainab Salbi and a whole generation of people, and I have never seen work that has this much impact, and it’s that combination of bringing women together in groups so they can support each other and then giving resources and skills and knowledge to really create economic impact, very, very powerful.

And the way that this is supported by individuals is through sponsorship.  Women here in the U.S. and in dozens of countries around the world sign up for $35 a month directly linked to a woman going through our one-year program.  Be sending letters back and forth, and you know, in Rwanda in particular, they come and they pull letters out of their dresses.  They’ve been carrying these letters around day in and day out and they say, there is a woman in America who cares about me, and I know I matter, so it’s a powerful form of support that goes well beyond financial, so that’s one of the ways that people can support. If you want to come to the beautiful Women’s Opportunity Center, we have an annual trip in June for our biggest supporters who come and directly experience, for example, as Joy was saying earlier, they get involved in weaving.  We had, a family come with us, so we’ve had husbands and wives learning how to drum, learning traditional dance, learning imigongo.  It’s a very, very powerful experience.  It’s a real opportunity for people to come and feel deeply inside themselves what kind of transformation can be made when people here in the U.S. connect to people in Rwanda and beyond.

EGGLESTON:  Thank you so much, and thank you again.

ADAMS:  Thank you, Verna, and thank you to Bloomberg Philanthropies.

OLIVER: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data.

Many thanks to Joy Rwamwenge and Laurie Adams for joining us. If you would like to become a sponsor, visit

And if you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Follow the Data podcast. This episode was produced by Electra Colevas, Lindsay Firestone, and Ivy Li, with music by Mark Piro — special thanks to David Sucherman.

As our founder Mike Bloomberg says, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. So until next time, keep following the data.

I’m Katherine Oliver, thanks for listening.