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Women Rise in Rwanda's Economic Revival

Female entrepreneurs in Maraba built thriving coffee farms and other successful businesses as society transformed in the wake of Rwanda's genocide. (Video By Travis Fox -- washingtonpost.com)
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By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008

MARABA, Rwanda -- Sun-kissed plantations ring this village, renowned in recent years for growing the rich arabica beans brewed and served in some of the world's finest coffee houses. But the secret to success here has had far less to do with the idyllic climate and volcanic soil than with a group of people who have emerged as Maraba's -- and Rwanda's -- most potent economic force: women.

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In the 14 years since the genocide, when 800,000 people died during three months of violence, this country has become perhaps the world's leading example of how empowering women can fundamentally transform post-conflict economies and fight the cycle of poverty. That is particularly clear here in Maraba, a southern village where a host of women -- largely relegated to backbreaking field work in the days before the genocide -- found unwanted opportunity in the fertile lands they would inherit from slaughtered husbands, fathers and brothers.

As both female and male survivors sought to rebuild coffee plantations with financial and technical assistance from international organizations, Maraba's women, most trying their hands at the business of farming for the first time, were by far the faster students. They showed more willingness than men, officials here said, to embrace new techniques aimed at improving quality and profit. Now, Maraba's female farmers are outdoing their male counterparts in both, numbering about half of all farmers in the village's coffee cooperative but producing 90 percent of its finest quality beans for export.

The march of female entrepreneurialism, playing out here and across Rwanda in industries from agribusiness to tourism, has proved to be a windfall for efforts to rebuild the nation and fight poverty. Women more than men invest profits in the family, renovate homes, improve nutrition, increase savings rates and spend on children's education, officials here said.

It speaks to a seismic shift in gender economics in Rwanda's post-genocide society, one that is altering the way younger generations of males view their mothers and sisters while offering a powerful lesson for other developing nations struggling to rebuild from the ashes of conflict.

"Rwanda's economy has risen up from the genocide and prospered greatly on the backs of our women," said Agnes Matilda Kalibata, minister of state in charge of agriculture. "Bringing women out of the home and fields has been essential to our rebuilding. In that process, Rwanda has changed forever. . . . We are becoming a nation that understands that there are huge financial benefits to equality."

Where Men Failed

In the central highlands town of Masaka, the road to female prosperity runs through a path of male shame.

The main drag -- a red earthen way -- winds through a number of tiny mud huts, passing first by the home of Ildiphonse Muhayimana, a builder whose yet-to-be installed iron roofing was seized by village elders this year not long after he defaulted on a $110 bank loan. "He spent the money on women and liquor," said his loan officer, Abed Muhawenimana. Further down the way, teacher Enock Muvunji met a similar fate, his bike seized last month until he repays a $277 loan.

Yet venture up the road, and you reach the door of Jeanine Mukandayisenga. The 29-year-old wife of a disabled army officer and mother of two took out a $50 microloan in 2005 with a plan to support her family. Her pitch: Few people in her neighborhood owned cellphones -- so she would buy one and charge a few cents per call. She paid back the loan within a year. Last year, she took out a $400 loan to open a graining mill for cassava flour. Her businesses are earning the family a relatively princely sum of $650 a month.

Officials at Vision Finance, the microloan arm of World Vision International that launched a program in 2005 in this town of 40,000, said that while women make up the majority of borrowers, four out of five defaulters are men.

"They say that women care more about the family, but I do not know if that is true," Mukandayisenga said. "I think it has more to do with the self-control woman show in hard times. We know how to survive when men despair."

Wise Investors

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that women have been key in reconstructing Rwanda. In the effort to finance the reduction of poverty in the developing world, many leading experts said that women simply make better investments.

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