Monica Tabet-Gugolz, alongside Marie Aimee Umugeni, pioneered NWC & Umutima, to create a unique, self-sustaining model: an NGO & cooperative that nurture one another. After four years, Monica is preparing to leave Kigali to return to Switzerland. With our deepest gratitude for the integral role Monica has played here over the past four years, we’d like to share hers and Umutima’s story as we tell her farewell.
Interview by Hilary Old
What brought you to Rwanda & what is your background?
My love story with Rwanda began in 2003 when I moved to Kibuye with my husband to work with a Swiss-funded development project. In this experience, I realized that being close to the roots of the work is where I fit – where I can have the most impact and contribute my best.
After three years, we returned to Switzerland, then on to Vietnam and Bangladesh, before coming back to Rwanda with our three children in 2013. My husband works for a bilateral development agency, while I’ve worked as a consultant with UN agencies and INGOs, specializing in project management and institutional development around women’s rights and gender equality.
Moving back to Rwanda represented an opportunity for me to give back – knowing the culture and the way people worked – in a lasting way and to build capacity, so that the model we build can live on beyond any role I’ve played, and truly belong to the women here.
How did you start & grow your vision with NWC?
NWC was close to home – in every sense. I had researched various grass roots organizations in Kigali, and made a list to visit. NWC was the first place I went because it was nearest to my home. But in a bigger way, it also turned out to be closest to the vision I had about creating a modern, local NGO making decisions in the interest of the mandate, rather than the individuals.
From the start Marie Aimee (President & Managing Director) understood and shared this idea. Having such a strong and positive partnership was essential in making it happen, because we went through a lot of change – in mindset, structure, and roles.
When I arrived in 2013, NWC was six years old, and funded entirely by the Peace Institute from Slovenia, who were aligned with NWC’s mission to educate and empower women in the neighborhood through literacy, sewing, English, computer, and gender classes. But the challenge was that without the Slovenian investment, the center couldn’t continue. When the funds weren’t available, NWC closed the doors for months at a time.
We needed to become sustainable, to build a circular model that could nurture itself, with or without outside funding. I had seen this well-intentioned process in other countries too, where donors come in with funds to support small groups, but the groups don’t have the capacity to manage or absorb funds properly, to ensure long term viability. And that dependency engenders challenges and pressures on the donor(s) and the NGO.
How did Umutima come into being, as a sister to NWC?
It was clear we needed to develop a way to make our own money, so we could more consistently fund NWC’s mission to educate and empower – and hopefully employ – the women of Nyamirambo.
The cooperative started because NWC had sewing classes but nothing beyond that. We had an opportunity to engage the women who had learned this skill to make products. There is such beautiful kitenge fabric here, and if we could choose the right quality and prints, and design in a unique and modern way, we could appeal to the community, particularly tourists and ex-pats looking for souvenirs. It seemed that was where the demand would come from.
So we began with a baby blanket, and small pouches with the leftover pieces. I bought our first fabrics with my own money, and Maya, our partner from the Slovenian Peace Institute, redirected their remaining funds to sewing machines.
Our first sale was the Kigali Christmas Bazaar at the African International Club (AIC). We rushed to get a collection done in time – I brought everything home to iron, and hand-made the price tags and gift bags. It was pretty crazy – lots of late nights and weekends working – but it was a big success and we learned a lot.
How did the NWC & Umutima’s unique model come to be?
The first full year I was present, 2014, we focused on developing the sewing and a way of working together. It was hard work to unpack issues and challenges that NWC had over time, and restructure the center to be collaborative in new ways. There were a lot of ups and downs on the path to becoming a real team. Trust was the essential ingredient to moving forward – we had to share values and integrity. Marie Aimee was chosen as President because all the women trusted her.
We registered Umutima as a cooperative, and the money earned employed women and was fed back into community offerings. We established a circular model that supported the work to go on, with or without outside funds. Today we are happy to accept donations, but we don’t want to depend on them.
We did some fundraising along the way (A Tree for Rwanda, a Swiss association, has provided us with funding these last 2 years, which has allowed us to grow quickly), but were very strict about applying that money in ways that didn’t create dependency. For example, we were gifted 1 year in rent, so we had to make sure the business was growing enough to then cover rent. And every year the business has doubled.
Umutima has grown in organic ways. We began with kids clothing when I met San, our pattern and sample making partner, at our children’s school and discovered her talent and willingness to jump in with us. The bags and other products also went into production, and over time we’ve discovered that there is no one or two best-sellers. People enjoy the array of items we make.
As Umutima expanded and we established ourselves in our current space, more tourists started coming and our community tours became known as a great thing to do in Kigali. The two together – our shop and the tours – offer an interesting and fun experience, and provide NWC the funds to support the neighborhood kids library and all classes provided to the community.
What role have you played in the development of Umutima’s designs?
I’ve always been drawn to local crafts because they give you a glimpse into the traditions of a place. When I arrived back in Rwanda after 6 years in Asia, I was inspired to create a fusion of tradition design with a modern twist.
There was such amazing kitenge in fabrics shops, yet it was not made up in the crafts you’d see. I started imagining what would I like for my own home, and what gifts would I want to give. It took some convincing for people to try this direction because the styles weren’t what the sewers themselves would have thought of – we had to learn how to serve a customer and a market that wanted a new take on the materials.
We created a set of principles:
- Limit ourselves to the materials and resources we find here, so we will know how to buy and use what we have for a lasting time.
- Create local handicrafts with a twist – special, good-quality fabrics and details that give it the Umutima look.
- Engage women’s cooperatives in the countryside. For example we partner with basket weavers, and over time we’ve asked them to try new shapes and evolve designs – this approach has supported our business and they have been able to depend on the consistency of our orders.
- Insist on quality of finishing. We’re never totally satisfied, but that’s normal! We believe that fine stitching is a big part of what makes Umutima products unique.
What are you most proud of?
Marie Aimee! She is my sister. We are very different – she is quiet, but she holds such strong presence and grace. She was trusted by everyone from the very beginning, and to see her growth over these 4 years, and her journey to become the most senior leader here, has been remarkable in every way.
I am proud that we committed fully to build this model together. For myself, it was something I needed to see through, even though it was really hard at times. My husband and I chose development, and with that career often come good contracts, nice housing and schools – a privileged situation. I wanted to do something amazing without needing the money or fancy backing as a way of paying back.
We went beyond what I ever imagined. We employ 50 women, we have a CEO, and accountant, computers, our taxes figured out, benefits for everyone who works with us, a shop full of people. We have great opportunity to grow within Rwanda, and maybe someday beyond.
I think I did more in these 4 years than ever. Perfect way to close 15 years in international development. I go away happy.
And I will stay connected, as a friend and an advisor.