By Gaius Kowene
As the sun goes down on the town of Kigali in Rwanda, a young woman is negotiating with some of her last customers of the day at Turikumwe Art Center, a social business that reinvests its income to support single mothers.
In this living room-turned-shop, she is surrounded by handmade clothes, as well as bags and jewelry made from Igitenge, a popular Dutch fabric that has been blended with the African identity.
Sylvie Isimbi, a 21-year-old graduate in math and computer science, has been working here as the Shop Manager for almost a year, and considers promoting locally manufactured products her dream job.
But she acknowledges that without access to the internet, finding and landing the job wouldn’t have been so easy for her.
“I would spend most of my time browsing the internet looking for employment opportunities and scholarships” she recalls of her immediate post-university days.
When the saw the job posting, she was able to directly apply online and do research about job interview tactics.
“I learned a lot of tips that boosted my self confidence,” she says. “I’m sure this gave me an advantage over other candidates who didn’t have permanent access to the internet.”
Sylvie is using the same skills that got her to job to keep the job. She helped the shop attract more customers by advertising online—a much less expensive option than traditional media in Rwanda.
“I occasionally act as the model,” she says with a smile. She tries on some of the shop’s clothing items, takes photos of herself with her smartphone, and shares them on the shop’s social media channels.
“Just yesterday, I posted a photo of myself wearing a jacket and hat we made here. My auntie immediately requested it and bought it,” she says, adding that this happens on an almost-daily basis with friends, family, and complete strangers.
Through these ads, Sylvie hopes to bring in more customers for the shop’s clothes and crafts, thereby promoting the work of the talented single mothers employed by the shop. According to Turikumwe Art Center records, more than 70 single mothers are benefiting from the increasing internet-driven sales.
One of them, Freedah Nyirahakiziyaremye, is raising her seven children. Despite nearly 20 years of experience in tailoring and fashion design, she was hardly making ends meet while working on her own.
But since her work started being advertised online, things have changed for the better. Now can she pay school fees for all her children, as well as save money for future investment in real estate.
“I already started building my own house and very soon won’t need to rent anymore,” she says.
Apart from the craft work, Sylvie says their business would close doors without access to the internet.
“Internet is everything for us,” she says.
Unfortunately, not all Rwandans have the luxury of accessing the internet. According to the International Telecommunications Union, only 18% of people in Rwanda are using the internet.
“Most of my friends don’t even know what the internet is all about and think it’s tricky stuff,” says Sylvie, adding that the low speed also poses an issue. “I tried to show some of them how they could also benefit from the internet, but they were impatient as the speed to show pages was very slow.”
Currently, Sylvie shares her salary with disadvantaged members of her church and focuses on improving the online promotion of her shop’s handmade products. She knows that the more people she can support via her connectivity, the more she can help people become self-sufficient, opening up a world of possibilities for the future.