Finding the True Social Benefits to Drive a Business

Gisenyi, Rwanda
Fall 2011

Last week Julian, Juliet, and I had the pleasure of visiting our friend Eric Reynolds in Gisenyi on Lake Kivu. Eric is the founder of Inyenyeri, a Rwandan social benefit company, but he is perhaps best known for the company he started while he was in college, Marmot, the popular American outdoor clothing company. It was incredibly inspiring to spend a day with the bundle of passion, energy, knowledge, conviction, humility, and determination that is Eric Reynolds. The vision that he has for Inyenyeri goes far beyond what the business is on the surface, a manufacturer of affordable, safe, and environmentally friendly stoves that run on agro waste. Inyenyeri is a platform from which Inyenyeri customers can truly transform their lives and eventually even own controlling shares in the company! Not only does Eric have a transformative big-picture vision, but he also thinks of all the small ways that Inyenyeri can be a positive presence in Gisenyi. For example, Eric purposefully constructed the roof of Inyenyeri’s raw materials collection hub to create a large overhand under which passersby can comfortably take shelter when it is raining. After our mind exploding conversation with Eric, the SHE team returned to Kigali with a lot of new thoughts on how we can change and improve the SHE model.

You can see in the picture below Juliet’s and my attempt at documenting some of our epiphanies in a crazy web of ideas.
















This is a picture of Julian and I posing beside some of Inyenyeri’s raw materials in the Inyenyeri collection hub.

Farming Away

Eastern Province, Rwanda

Hello everyone,
I am back to tell you how our week went…….
For the whole of the past week, Megan and I have been on long bus and motorcycle rides travelling to the Eastern part of Rwanda in search for banana cooperatives that can become our potential supplies for banana fibers as one of our raw materials for production of affordable sanitary pads.

Megan and I have visited five banana cooperatives so far, and our target is to visit ten cooperatives this month. I enjoy talking to the presidents of the coops, and interpreting for Megan in English and for the coop representative in Kinyarwanda is my favorite.

Right now, farmers only use the harvested pseudostems as fertilizers in their plantations or food for the cows during the dry season when they cannot get grass for their cows. Farmers are so excited to work with SHE in this supply chain, and it’s one way of adding value to the banana industry in Rwanda.

However, during these field visits, we go into very remote areas where there are no restaurants, no stores, no nothing… only the beautiful green banana plantations….so we hardly get food and we can only eat when back to Kigali.

On one of the field visits to Ngoma (Eastern Province), we got stuck on the way back to kigali because there was a truck that had had an accident and knocked houses on the main road, and it took forever to clear the roads so our bus had to just find his way through banana plantations. It was so terrible, so much traffic…and we got to Kigali at around 9:00pm and yet we usually get there at 5:30pm. It’s a great experience for Megan and me.

Looking forward to giving more updates on what is going on in Rwanda.

Juliet.B

Gone Bananas

Kirehe, Rwanda

I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the term “field visit.” Many U.S. based NGOs refer to their project site offices as their “field sites,” even if the office is in an urban area in a capital city. Even within project site offices, I’ve heard employees refer to nearly any type of meeting that occurs outside of the office as a “field visit.” This nomenclature bothers me because, as Alanna Shaikh writes on her popular foreign aid blog Blood and Milk (hyperlink: http://bloodandmilk.org/2011/01/31/the-field/), “if you’re a local partner in a development project, how do you feel when your own home is referred to as ‘the field?’ What does that say about the true nature of your partnership? … It is alienating in the word’s truest sense to hear your own territory referred to as the intimidating unknown.”

This week, however, I can say with a clean conscious that Juliet and I did a field visit. We traveled to a banana plantation! In an effort to better understand the supply chain of banana fibers, Juliet and I hopped on a bus to Kirehe (about two hours outside of Kigali) to learn more about Kamara, the largest banana coop in Rwanda. On our ride to Kirehe, President Kagame and his delegation zoomed passed us in their armed vehicles. Juliet and I interpreted our encounter as a good omen: this was going to be a fruitful meeting. And indeed it was! Literally, our field visit was fruitful because we spent the day surrounded by (and eating) bananas. Figuratively, the visit was fruitful because we learned A LOT about the banana supply chain. The coop president was really excited about the potential of expanding the productive capacity of his farmers. Ordinarily the Kamara farmers chop down their banana stalks and do nothing with the fiber inside the stalks. Once SHE enters the market, however, the Kamara coop farmers could potentially increase their revenue by turning trash into treasure. We also learned some details about the ways in which SHE might, in the future, fit the Kamara coop into our supply chain. It was a fruitful field visit to say the least!

Check out our video to see what banana fibers look like:


Megan
video