I have had the opportunity to hear the stories of people from a number of co-operative enterprises in Rwanda, host this year to the annual conference of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA).
The country is rebuilding impressively over recent years, after the horrors of the war and genocide of 1994.
Every town has a Genocide Memorial, including one in the capital city Kigali, which I visited with an ICA delegation, to lay a wreath in remembrance.
The cooperative sector before 1994 had been weak, seen as a conduit for donors, but in the last decade, they have started to play a much wider role in the economy. In 2007, legislation was passed for co-operatives, and each sector of farming was organised into primary co-ops, federations and unions, offering a chance to bring cooperation into the entire value chain.
Today, the number of cooperative members is 3,816,591, representing over half of all the Rwanda adult population (55.3% of Rwanda). The number of co-operative enterprise has increased from 919 in 2005 to 8,995 in 2018.
This rebuilding of the co-operative sector has helped the country to reduce levels of poverty and inequality, Monique Nsantabaganwa, Deputy Governor, Rwanda Central Bank told ICA delegates on Thursday. “Taken together, the co-operative sector is now Rwanda’s biggest wealth creator” said the Business and Industry Minister, Soraya Hakuziyaremye.
Following an excellent three day conference, exploring the role of co-operatives in advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (which you can read more about via the reports of Co-op News) I had the chance to meet two transport co-operatives operating out of the capital city, Kigali.
One, Coctramavk, was formed in 2009 by 88 lorry drivers, each investing ten thousand Rwandan francs (around ten US dollars). One of the founders was Peter Kambanda and he showed me one of the seven trucks today that is jointly owned by the co-op, alongside the trucks (typically imported from Europe after they had been driven for around 300,000 kilometres) owned by the members themselves.
They compete for contracts to drive goods between Rwanda and around seven other countries in the region. Today they have ninety eight members, with good profits, shared as a dividend for each in 2018 of six hundred thousand Rwandan francs (around six hundred dollars). The co-op also offers medical insurance too for members and their families.
Medical insurance is also on the to do list for the second co-op I visited. Remera Transport Co-operative was formed by seventy cab drivers in November 2011, each contributing capital of one hundred thousand Rwandan francs. When a competition was run for the provision of public transport in the city, Remera won the contract for twenty one routes.
In 2014, therefore, the co-op borrowed money to finance the purchase of the first seven coasters (29 seater minibuses), with a further eleven in 2015. Today, it has paid off the loans and increased its capacity with 70 seater buses too. In concert with the regulator and other co-ops serving different routes, it has introduced tap and go payment technology, to make public transport cashless. The buses also operate free WiFi.
The co-op has won awards from the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority for its services and has increased its members from 70 to 240.
In a blustering wind, with rains falling outside, Eric, a member of the co-op, described to me the key challenges as ones of access to capital, traffic jams and a lack of public awareness of the importance of co-operatives. “We overcome each of these challenges by working hard and being optimistic.”
The achievements he lists of the venture as: creating employment, reducing poverty and contributing to the national government through taxes.
Eric, for one, was proud of their contribution to taxation. He liked the idea of the Fair Tax Mark, pioneered by co-ops and social enterprise in the UK.
His words chimed for me with an event I saw being organised which was Taxpayers Appreciation Day and the song with which Peter and his fellow lorry drivers had welcomed us with – 🎵Who will build Rwanda? We will build Rwanda and we will do it by ourselves.
Self help? You can’t fake it, and you certainly can’t beat it.