As early as 10,000 B.C., sheep have done their duty of clothing humanity. As one of the world’s oldest textiles, it eventually became the backbone of England’s economy in the 12th century.
Wool has gradually lost its popularity, and only one percent of it was used globally in 2018.
However, despite being a small market, this fiber is starting to make its mark in Rwanda, while also opening opportunities for some of the most vulnerable women in the country.
Musanze in northern Rwanda is the country’s most mountainous region. It’s here that the organization, Handspun Hope, teaches women how to make hand-made knit apparel out of merino sheep and angora rabbit wool.
Triphonie Abahire, the production manager of Handspun Hope, said they are currently the only ones in Rwanda who process wool for clothing.
“We have local sheep here in Rwanda but people… don’t shear them,” Abahire said.
She said the local sheep have coarse hair that isn’t suitable for yarn.
Therefore, Handspun Hope imports merino sheep from Kenya and employs local farmers to look after them. After the farmers sheer the sheep, the wool is collected and brought to Handspun Hope’s workshop, where it goes through many stages before products are made.
“When we are in high season, we can make even 50 sweaters per month. And in low season, we can make between 5 and 25,” Abahire said.
According to Abahire, Rwanda doesn’t have a market for their creations.
Therefore, the products are exported to the US where they are sold in more than 100 boutiques. The price for each item ranges from $28 to $225.
“Previously the textile industry in country, like most of the east African region, has been quite dormant.
But then it is upon this that governments across the east African region, including Rwanda, agreed to phase out and eventually burn the imports of second-hand clothes,” said Collins Mwai, a business analyst in Kigali, Rwanda, who has been following the country’s efforts to boost textile exports.
“What that has done is that it is giving rise to the emergence of local, small and medium sized enterprises.”
The country’s “Made in Rwanda” campaign is helping these efforts by increasing exports of small and medium businesses in different industries.
So far, since 2017, Rwanda’s total exports have increased by 69 percent.
“I think in the coming years we are likely to see a growth in export of clothes made out of fleece, of wool of sheep largely because as time goes, the women doing this will get into sort of an ecosystem,” Mwai said.
“Whereby they will have cycles of productions that are more predictable because that is what guarantees entry into an international market.”
Australia currently dominates the world in the wool market, averaging $2 billion a year.
Rwanda isn’t close to those numbers, but Handspun Hope’s country director, Simon Pierre Dufitumukiza, knows the production of wool is making an impact in other ways.
“The project started in 2008,” Dufitumukiza said. “We started as an NGO, but an NGO that gives people a job.”
From cutting to dying and knitting, more than 100 women work meticulously for Handspun Hope.
“These women, I think they are an indicator of how every day the Rwandan community has been expanding, and bringing in previously ignored sectors, but now they’re finding ways to make an income out of it,” said Collins Mwai.
Beatrice Mukanoheri is one of those women. Since she started working at Handspun Hope, making animal shapes out of wool, she has been able to earn a steady income.
“I have benefited a lot from my job at Handspun Hope because I joined a very poor lady,” Mukanoheri said. “I have a new house. I got a loan from the bank and I got running water and electricity.”
Although Rwanda has one of the highest rates of female labor force in the world,only 24 percent of the women have accounts with commercial banks. And according to Abahire, most of her employees didn’t have bank accounts until they started working for Handspun Hope.
“Now they have accounts in their bank. So they are growing, like in micro finances, they are making some savings. They are changing their life (sic),” she said.