Launching GEI’s new Business Mentor Program in Rwanda

by Katie Carlson (GEI Program Manager, Rwanda)
In about two weeks, GEI will be hosting a team of business coaches selected by the Dutch organization Fair2 here in Kigali to mentor small business owners and entrepreneurs in Rwanda. As part of my job as Program Manager, I have been scouting mentees in Kigali to match with one of our visiting business coaches. Keeping in mind the disadvantages that many business women face in Rwanda due to social, cultural and economic barriers, we had initially focused on finding female mentees, as this demographic is most in need of business development support. What I discovered during this process was both challenging and inspiring.

The final three mentees we have selected are a group of women who focus on very different business areas. Our first mentee is working to establish a pasta factory in Rwanda after undertaking a six month training in Italy; she will be producing, packaging and distributing pasta across Rwanda and further into the East African Community over the next 2-3 years.

Our second mentee is an inspiring woman who also happens to be the founder of the Rwanda Tourism University College. Though she has had tremendous success with the college, she is now keen to start a useful business venture in Rwanda that would focus on training and preparing domestic workers for the market, as well as seeking to establish professional standards of treatment and behavior for both employer and employee in this as yet completely unregulated market. In Rwanda, domestic workers are extremely common, but they often have no formal training for their jobs, which can lead to conflict in the workplace and even abuse and mistreatment by employers. Our mentee’s idea for a training center to help regulate and support this market is incredibly savvy and in tune with what Rwanda needs.

Women & Business

Our third mentee is a young mother who owns a small shop selling general goods in the outskirts of Kigali and is looking to expand her business and become more profitable to support her family. These small shops are ubiquitous across Rwanda and supporting business owners in these often tiny and overlooked markets is a vital part of contributing to development in this country.

What I noticed most about these three women is the difference in their attitudes towards being women in business. Our first two mentees are very competent and confident in their abilities, which makes all the difference in pursuing a business venture as a new entrepreneur, which can often be a very intimidating and overwhelming process. Our third mentee, which I would say represents the vast majority of underprivileged women in Rwanda, made a surprising comment to me. In mistakenly thinking that I was the founder of GEI, she asked me how I was able to develop such a company, as a woman. She mentioned all of the responsibilities that women have in the home and the challenges they face just being women, and she found it so surprising that I would have found the time and support to start such a company.

Her comments made me realize that while women like our first two mentees exist in Rwanda and stand as an inspiration to others, women like our third mentee remain the majority. This woman’s desire to support herself and her family pushed her to open her small shop, but the challenges that she faces just because she is a woman have held her back from dreaming bigger and going farther. It is this mentality, as a result of their lived realities, that holds women back and keeps them from contributing to the economy in a more meaningful way. If there was any doubt that gender roles don’t negatively impact women, their children, and even the economies they live in, the reality of this woman’s experience should send a strong message.

Despite Rwanda’s many honest and inspiring stories of gender equality and women’s empowerment, dismantling harmful gender roles and achieving meaningful gender equality at the level of the home, society, and the economy remains as crucial a need as ever for this country to move forward and enhance its development on a truly sustainable path. This is our intention as GEI and we look forward to celebrating the future growth and achievements of our three inspiring mentees.