By: Makaiah Mohler, Georgetown University, ThinkImpact Rwanda Scholar
It is mid afternoon on Wednesday, July 9th, and I am sitting on a woven banana leaf mat beneath the shade of an overhanging tree. Today has had a quality of sweltering heat, and I am happy to finally be relaxing out of the direct sun. I spent the large part of this morning walking around the outskirts of our community, Binunga, with one of our community translators. Today alone, I have talked to a cultivator, a small shop owner, a nursery school teacher, and a retired army veteran. Each one told an intricate story of their daily struggles, but also expressed immense aspirations for the businesses they wished to start or services they hoped to bring to Binunga.
As we are wrapping up the “Inspire” phase of our program, I am also finishing the fantastic book, “the Blue Sweater” by Jacqueline Novogratz. The book has offered many insightful reflections and motivating stories, while I in turn went around and heard about the equally inspiring lives of the Rwandans I am fortunate to live amongst in Binunga.
“The Blue Sweater” focuses on the author’s experiences helping create social enterprises around the world with her organization “Acumen Fund,” which she was inspired to start after living in Rwanda in the late 1980s. The Rwanda she describes, at the time untarnished by the atrocities of the 1994 Genocide, sounds simultaneously so similar and contrasting to the Rwanda I find myself in today. She writes about the swaying banana trees, vibrant hillsides, long-horned cows, and giggling children screaming “muzungu!” as they run to grab your hand.
In the past few weeks, I have come to know these characteristics well, and at the same time find it foreign to read about the blatant ethnic intolerance and armed guards on every corner Novogratz writes about in her book. The Rwanda I have come to know displays a fierce national pride, which exudes itself in the admiration for President Kagame and the constantly proclaimed phrase of “We are all Rwandans.”
During the first few days of the Inspire phase, I was disappointed to hear routine answers from community members citing electricity as a necessary step to economic development. I also saw a disconnect in this simplified answer to complex problems Rwandans face. The ThinkImpact program relies on finding individuals who question the norms of economic development, and then positively deviate from those norms to innovate in untapped fields. I suppose when I began the inspire phase, I was skeptical I would be able to find such innovators who will make this program a success. However, all my doubts thankfully subsided after the amazing people I met this week.
One man I came across is the aforementioned army veteran who now operates a water pump that earns his family an estimated 500,000 RWF a month. This is an incredible income for a resident of Binunga. He has become successful by closely tracking when the frequently turned off public water pump is on, and filling up his own large storage tank. He then sells what he stores in the tank to locals when the water pump is off, which is the majority of the day. Without his business, the residents of Binunga would only have access to water during a part if their day.
He is using his current savings to build a house in Binunga that he would then rent to the homeless. He also talks wildly of potential projects he hopes to start in the future. This small entrepreneur is already making a huge difference for his family and the water security of his community. Within him I see the positive embodiment of national pride for economic development as well as individual innovation.
As I enter the Innovate phase of the curriculum, I am now confident we can assemble a design team of motivated individuals who defy the norm of unquestionably following the goal of economic development through standard procedure of allowing services to be brought through government programs or international aid, whose support will eventually dwindle. Instead, our team members will be courageous innovators who question the norms of development and seek to create services themselves.
The military veteran is only one of these amazing entrepreneurs I have met thus far, and I am assured that there are hundreds left to discover within Binunga. The opportunity to work alongside such innovators is why I have been newly invigorated to be part or the ThinkImpact program. I am looking forward to seeing what ideas come out of the innovate phase. For now, I am reminded that the greatest chance Rwanda has towards developing as it aspires to is not follow the norms laid out by developed countries, but to follow the lead of its own innovative citizens.
The views, opinions, and positions expressed by the author of this article do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University or any employee thereof.