The Independent (Kampala)

Uganda: Turning Passion Into Money

Mrs. Gatera earns RWF 1million monthly from handcrafts:

Just opposite the Union Trade Center (UTC) complex, in the heart of Kigali city is one of the buildings that houses COOTRAK, a cooperative of 22 artisans which is also one of the most popular art spots in Rwanda.

Laurence Gatera is one of the members of the cooperative. She has a telling story of how one can use art to walk tall in life. She wakes up every morning imagining the shape and looks to give to her next invention and needs only her hands and a few in puts to make her creation.

Mrs. Gatera is a happy mother of four and wife to local TV personality, Alphonse Gatera. She says that she can never think of leaving the art and crafts industry, not for anything, because it enables her to express her feelings and influence society in many ways, and most importantly live her dream life.

On visiting her stall, which is one of the 22 in COOTRAK's building, one is greeted by different beautiful pieces of artistic carvings from clay and wood, designer cloths and other handiwork items like earrings, bracelets and necklaces made from paper. She also stocks some crafts, especially those with sophisticated art, brought in by Kenyans and Ugandans or other artisans from countryside.

To make her fabrics, Mrs. Gatera buys cloths of 100% cotton and uses her hands to paint them innovatively to get designer shirts, skirts, and other clothes.

She doesn't have to spend much on labor or material input because she goes for the cheapest possible cotton second hand clothes of white color and sometimes designs shirts that are no longer won and gives them a factory-new look.

She has made cloths for different personalities in the country ranging from average-earners to big entrepreneurs and public figures. She mentions François Kanimba, the Minister of Trade and Industry as one of her good customers. She also supplies to retailers from around the country who either give her orders or buy what is available in shelves.

"Sometimes I make surprises for my husband by changing the look of a white shirt which he no longer wears, to something that looks like an imported shirt. I don't have to import my inputs because I can get them easily, even from markets," she says.

She is able to earn over Rwf1 million from her shop in a good month, the money that has enabled her to support her husband in providing for the family's needs and acquiring whatever asset they have.

"Sometimes my husband is caught up in other busy plans yet the kids need school fees and I cater for that or even any other bigger needs because I make my own money." Her first-born, a girl, is in her senior two while her youngest is in primary four.

Mrs. Gatera's success builds on the fact that she does what she really loves -art, and always wants invent and be the best at whatever she does. Her love for art dates back to her childhood days where she says that her eyes were always impressed by any artistic features unconsciously, even the weird shapes like broken pots in dustbins. She never dreamt of earning a living from art though and she tried joining business after the 1994 Genocide to start a new life.

"I was not able to continue with my studies because I had lost everything of mine in the 1994 genocide and the FARG (Fund for Genocide survivors') had not reached out to support us yet I still needed to survive. I got married soon after and tried doing several small businesses but they were not successful. That is when I made decision to achieve something with my talent and earn a living from it."

And Mrs. Gatera is the kind of a woman that cannot afford to rest before putting to action what she thinks or plans to do. A colleague taught her the basics of crafts-making for some fee and after one year, she was ready to start business in handcrafts.

She first worked with her trainer in the same shop for over three years to snatch more skills in the business and then set on her own enterprises, which she currently runs. She also started mentoring other women groups and girls in handcrafts making and offering employment opportunities to other people.

She has grown her business so fast that she never misses out of regional trade fairs in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and beyond where she makes international contacts and comes back with mega profits. She was also one of the recent finalists of the Handcraft Excellence Award Program" (HEAP) coordinated by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, where various artisans countrywide are engaged in competitions and the finalists awarded.

Like most of her workmates, Gatera has the cooperative to thank for the level of success she has reached because it has given her a good place to work from.

"I did not find enough customers at first because my workplace was not known but when I joined the cooperative, all I was left to do was producing what others don't have and making very good crafts to get and retain customers which I did easily, " says Mrs. Gatera.

The cooperative also helps Mrs. Gatera and her workmates to solve their money problems because they have a period contribution that can help anyone who needs quick cash. They are also able to get training and other support easily as a cooperative rather than as individuals.

They for instance were able to convince the City of Kigali authorities to extend the deadline for vacating them from their building to pave way for construction of modern and bigger commercial houses yet all other businesses that operated from the same area shifted.

The Ministry also links the artisans with the foreign visitors, who are the major buyers of crafts. Mrs. Gatera however notes that Rwandans have started developing interest for the handcrafts too and can now spend much money on them, especially for house decorations and ornaments. Some of her crafts sell as cheaply as Rwf1000 while others sell over Rwf50, 000.

Though Mrs. Gatera gets her inputs cheaply, it is still difficult to get 100% cotton cloth locally. That is one reason why she ended up inventing other artistic products like earrings and belts made out of paper and stocking variety of products.

Humphrey Kizito, one of the customers that the writer met at the stall noted: "Most people who make handcrafts don't have prior business knowledge and they end up supplying their designs to people with boutiques cheaply, who in-turn get more profits from them."

"I bought locally-made earrings some time back and my friend appreciated them very much because they looked unique from what we get from other stores. Some of the designs here, like sandals made from cloth, are the very award-winning designs out of Rwanda, but our people still don't appreciate their value," says Kizito.

At the cooperative, Mrs. Gatera is regarded not only as the most senior artisan but also an inspiration to most of her younger workmates largely because of her personality. By mare talking to Mrs. Gatera, one notices humility in her personality, which is possibly because she is a regular Church goer. In church, she serves in the ministry of mercy.

Tegayombi Akariza, another handcrafts trader at the stores notes: "Most of the artisans produce common things and other buy most of their stock from rural crafts makers but she (Mrs. Gatera) is the kind that just makes what is from her head. Even when she copies an idea from somewhere else, you may not notice before she tells you."

"She is also an inspiration because of her spirit of hard work. She sometimes takes a day off to work on her orders and the next morning, her shop is full of new products. She can also make you an earring while you are getting ready for work and trust me, it will be ready just in time," Akariza further explains.

Mrs. Gatera plans on expanding her premises to serve more customers and supplying her fabrics to more people in the country. She also wants to start promoting her handcrafts as well as helping as many people as possible to venture into crafts making.

She encourages people; especially job seekers who have gotten stuck seeking office positions around town, to think outside the box and create their own jobs especially through trying jobs which she says are easily to venture in once someone acquires the basic skills. She however advises people to do such jobs only if they really like them.

"One must not hesitate to try a job if they like it because that is the only way they will be happy in their careers.

And, there are opportunities everywhere around us and if we can try them we may not linger around or wait for chances for white-collar jobs to come our way."

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