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Last month, the Sundara team was given an exciting opportunity to visit the Central African country of Rwanda. It was not a tropical vacation, nor a gorilla trek or safari (maybe next time!) but rather, the chance to meet with organizations both big and small who have dedicated themselves to improving lives through education, health and hygiene, empowerment and economic opportunity.

Rwanda is one of the smallest countries in Africa, carved between Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Burundi. It is also one of the youngest countries in the world, as its government, policies and economy experienced a rebirth after the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. The quick and violent period only lasted 3 months, and resulted in the death of nearly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Yet, in 2018, as our team sped through the clean and bustling metropolis of Kigali each morning on our moto-taxis, all we felt around us was growth and the optimistic ingenuity of a newly developing country.

Rwanda hosts East Africa's largest commercial solar field, next to Agahozo Shalom Youth Village.

This tiny nation of 13 million people still struggles with poverty; with nearly 40% living below poverty line (Rwanda UNDP) and 90% of its economy subsistence on agriculture. With Rwanda’s challenges of population growth, limited resources and the desire to be self-sufficient, we discovered an array of organizations tackling these issues in unique ways.

Our week began several hours outside of Kigali, in the rolling emerald hills of Rubona: a small town that hosts the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village. A boarding school that hosts nearly 900 adolescent students from the most vulnerable situations, ASYV was created under the Jewish concept of Tikkum Olam only several years after the genocide. An organization that was once specifically catered to those orphaned by the events of 1994, ASYV today is a model for education, access and leadership for a wide expanse of vulnerable adolescents across the country.

Students listening at a presentation on social businesses by the Sundara team

Sundara had the opportunity to spend time with ASYV’s public health fellow to explore the existing challenges of hand washing and hygiene practices. We spent two full days with ASYV’s health team and students discussing how to incorporate hygiene promotion in a fun and creative way, followed by a presentation of our soap-making model in India to their entrepreneurship classes. It was incredible to see the interest and creativity behind these students- from their ideas of creating catchy hygiene promotion music videos, to their interest in soap recycling as a business model, self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship shone from every person we met.

Sundara team members with staff and students from ASYV

Our week continued on with a series of incredible meetings with other organizations. Back in Kigali, we met with SHE (Sustainable Health Enterprises), the leading ladies of menstrual hygiene management, who utilize banana fiber and manufacture affordable sanitary pads. They then employ a salesforce of women to introduce pads into rural markets, and teach reproductive and menstrual health in schools to girls- yes, and boys too. The unique model echoes sustainability in every detail of their programs, from the harvesting of the material to the production and distribution of the pads, SHE introduces an affordable and essential item into the rural economy in Rwanda, therefore providing employment and improving livelihoods for women and girls in more ways than one. Hygiene promotion through sustainability and women’s empowerment touched Sundara, as it is a model that we take pride in and a rarity in this part of the world.

Sundara team poses with youth hygiene ambassadors after a health and hygiene training

From SHE’s innovative MHM programs, we joined another female-run organization, Resonate for a cup of strong Rwandan coffee. Another initiative focusing on community stakeholders and grassroots movements, Resonate provides women with essential soft-skills to help empower their decision making and confidence- some of the most essential qualities to becoming independent and a leader. As Resonates founder Ayla Schlosser led us through a storytelling exercise, we felt a wave of emotions when reflecting on our own professional journeys, and that of our amazing Sundara employees back in India.

Not the worst view from the office, right? 

We finished our week in the small town of Musanze, with the towering volcanoes of Virunga National Park in the near distance. Here, we met with Spark Microgrants at their headquarters, to learn about their system of lending microloans to make a big impact. The model empowers communities and enhances their decision making: the community itself decides how the money will be used and managed, and develop tangible goals for what is most needed for their future. The impact has been immense: 178 communities have been reached across three countries with a 94% sustainability rate.

As we concluded our week with a cold soda on Lake Kivu, we reflected on a simple word: empowerment. Each of the organizations we met with in Rwanda enhanced empowerment and community made decisions in a different way. Whether it is through a grant to build a new latrine, teaching a housewife to empower herself to open a small business, or spreading public health knowledge to communities - Rwanda’s ability to empower its people to take the lead was a lesson for us- and Sundara cannot wait to continue to emphasize this in all that we do.

This blog was written by Ali Sassoon - Sundara's newest team member. Photos taken by Danny Forest.

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