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Step by Step: Business as a means to sustainable impact in Rwanda

“Step by step, Travis. Step by step.” During the years I worked in Africa running a microcredit institution I heard these words countless times from my Rwandan colleague and friend, Claudien. Claudien is an accomplished leader, twenty years my senior, and also happens to be a refugee of the 1994 genocide who settled with his family in Maputo, Mozambique. As a driven young American working in Africa, I quickly realized that I had to “unlearn” much of what I knew about ways to get things done and embrace a “step by step” approach to progress. My colleague’s words expressed many truths about being effective in the region, namely: progress takes time (longer than you are used to, Travis), progress necessitates relationship building, and progress is achieved incrementally. As a leader of Noonday Collection, one of my greatest joys today is the opportunity to work alongside our partners in Africa—creating new ventures, new products, new jobs, new hopes and new aspirations—and observe the impact on lives over time. Step. By. Step.

In Africa, Noonday currently works with partners in three countries—Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda. Our Rwandan partner, Umucyo, is our smallest artisan partnership with only 12 women, but holds a special place in our heart, as Rwanda was instrumental in the birth of Noonday Collection. Jessica’s son, Jack, is from Rwanda, and it was the fundraiser Jessica launched four years ago to raise money for his adoption process that was the precursor to what is now Noonday Collection.

Progress for Umucyo has been step by step. In Rwanda, 45% of the population lives below the poverty line, with a full 24% living in extreme poverty. The initial step for Umucyo was taken by Jennifer Jukanovich, an American living in Rwanda who said “yes” to a request for assistance from a group of local women who were struggling to provide care for their families. With the support of Noonday customers and friends, the women completed 6 months of sewing training and received new sewing machines on their way to creating a local business that provides them with sustainable income to support their family.

In spring 2012 the women of Umucyo decided to organize their business as a cooperative (“co-op”). As a co-op, every member is an equal owner in the business and important decisions are determined through consensus. Now that they had a formal business entity, the necessary tools, a committed buying partner and a marketplace for their products, the women of Umucyo were ready to launch. In July 2012, the cooperative celebrated its first export shipment to the US market.

In the United States, 8 out of 10 businesses fail within their first 18 months. The success rate in Africa is not that much different from what I know. Umucyo is now two years into business and is a thriving artisan partner for Noonday. The story of Umucyo illustrates the way Noonday is working to create opportunity for people living in vulnerable situations across the globe. These Rwandan women are proving to the world that they can participate in the global marketplace and create products that compete in the modern fashion world. It’s not easy. It does take time. And, importantly, it is working.

Next month, the women of the Umucyo cooperative will welcome a talented group of storytellers to Rwanda, alongside Noonday Collection and International Justice Mission, as a part of the #StyleForJustice Trip. The Umucyo women will be sharing their stories through video, blog posts and photographs, illustrating their hardships, the impact being made by their partnership with Noonday, their ongoing journey in the face of poverty and their hope for the future. Most of all, I am excited for you to learn more about how, step by step, we are together, creating real progress through relationships across the globe.

Meet Travis Wilson

Travis is Noonday Collection’s Co-CEO. His journey to Noonday started many years ago when he left his job as an investment banker to become a banker to the poor in Africa. Travis is passionate about the role of entrepreneurship in alleviating poverty and creating social change. On weekends and when not traveling the world, he enjoys spending time with his wife and three children.