When the 1994 genocide took the lives of her father and three brothers, Emelienne Nyiramana was forced into a life of day-to-day survival. She persevered, keeping her eyes on the road ahead. With other women who “shared the same problem of poverty”, Emelienne helped start a sewing cooperative – Cocoki. Because of her potential, she was singled out for the Goldman Sachs “10,000 Women” business training program and received her certificate this past December.
Today Emelienne is the Treasurer and Master Seamstress for Cocoki, playing a pivotal role in its expansion – the cooperative now sells its accessories and crafts to more than thirty high-end retail stores across the U.S.
ISOKO: Where were you born?
Nyiramana: I was born in Nyanza, in the southern province of Rwanda. Before the genocide I studied two years in high school. I didn’t finish the second year though. I got married after 1994 and we moved to Kigali.
ISOKO: What led you into the business of sewing?
Nyiramana: I’ve lived different kinds of life. I spent a long time at home, watching the kids and trying to survive. It was a difficult and miserable life. After I tried to open a small shop and it failed, I did the jobs of fetching water and cleaning offices. But it was not getting me anywhere – my salary was not exceeding 400 Rwandan francs (75 cents) a day. 400 Rwandan francs cannot get you anywhere. I didn’t even have a bank account.
In 2005, I made a decision to learn how to sew.
ISOKO: How did the idea of starting a cooperative come about?
Nyiramana: Together with women who shared the same problem of poverty, we decided to start a cooperative with the help of an organization called Indego Africa.
At the start our cooperative was part of another association, but we later parted. We had nowhere to work after that. I gathered the women and put them in the sitting room of my house. That’s where we worked for four months. We then managed to rent a house to work from, with the help of Indego.
We started the cooperative with 200,000 Rwandan francs [$350]. But we really had no capital to make it grow. We got this capital from the orders we received, and the business began to expand.
ISOKO: What were some of your initial struggles with the cooperative?
Nyiramana: When we got here [pointing to the rented house], it was really hard for us. The house was not in a marketable place. Some of the members started leaving. We started at the number of 49, but now have only 26 women. The other members left because of the delay in profit making.
I’m one of those who had the patience to stay, and urged the others to stay as well. When we started, I was the manager of the cooperative. When we moved to this house, another women was put in charge of financing, and she failed. Another one replaced her, and she failed too. I was therefore entrusted that position because of the way I worked.
ISOKO: How did you get involved with the Goldman Sachs program, 10,000 Women?
Nyiramana: I continued to show more potential at the cooperative, to the point where Indego Africa advised me to apply for the program. I applied for the trainings and did an interview. Over one hundred applied, and I was among the thirty selected.
ISOKO: Were you afraid of studying at the School of Finance and Banking [the program’s partner university], where some of the country’s brightest, most educated students attend class?
Nyiramana: You see, I was very happy when I was first told about it. I knew it would be difficult and I knew that I might fail. But I said to myself, “If you really want something, you can achieve it.“ I can achieve it. On the application papers, they asked if you were ready to leave your family and attend the classes. I was ready for that. I knew I was ready, and I was very happy –happy for the chance to attend trainings from a place like that.
ISOKO: What did you learn at 10,000 Women?
Nyiramana: We learned how to start a business – customer care, bookkeeping, human resource management, how to register a business. There was a study of linking our cooperative to the customers, and a very nice lesson on accountancy – as a person who once made a loss, I really needed to understand the books to that it wouldn’t happen here too. And bookkeeping was very important. At the cooperative we didn’t know that there was a book for the bank, a book for the materials we take in, a book for the materials we take out.
ISOKO: What did you learn as an aspiring entrepreneur?
Nyiramana: The one thing I’ve learned is that if you are to be an entrepreneur, you have to be patient and learn how to deal with the difficulties, because later on you get something out of it. We spent a lot of time here without a market for the goods, but the market soon widened with the help of partners like Indego. And you can see that the market widened even more with more partners. An example is the internal market we started selling to through Rwanda Nziza. Before we had no market to sell locally, and now we believe the market will widen further.
ISOKO: Growing up, did you ever consider that you would reach this level?
Nyiramana: You know, in my childhood I never thought I’d be anything. I never thought I’d be a woman who can make something to be sold in America. But today, the fact that I do these things, the fact that I was picked out of more than 100 women to attend the Goldman Sachs training, showed me that if I keep working with courage I’m going to take another step, and I’m going to be someone else. And I tell these things to my children. I tell them that they need to focus on their future, and know that good things will happen when they work hard and with courage.
ISOKO: How do you see yourself a role model for other women?
Nyiramana: In Rwanda, even though there are some women who are capable to work, many have not released the fear. Like I told you, when we started some saw that it was not immediately possible, and they got scared and left. They would say that instead of staying here and waiting, they’d rather sit at home and take care of their kids. We, however, are proud because we thought we were capable, even though it would not come immediately. There was also a lesson about that in the trainings, to be an investor you have to be ready for problems. But after problems there comes prosperity.
We feel we have the pride because we’re good examples to the other women who still think they can’t be investors. We have that pride because we are women who accepted the work and who will help develop the country. Because actually when a woman works, when she develops, the family develops too. Many times when you teach a woman, you’re teaching the child too.