Sewing, or Sowing? A Women’s Cooperative Gardens for Better Health


The Abahizi Dushyigikirane Ltd. (ADC) Factory, nestled in the beautiful hills of Rwanda’s Rulindo District, has the same appearance as any other building in the small community just outside of Kigali. After entering the gate, it becomes obvious the factory is unique. Brightly colored murals cover the walls, while the sound of hammers, the whirring of sewing machines, and the smell of fabric dye fill the air. Music plays from a distant set of speakers and women busily run in and out of buildings carrying colorful textiles and tools. This is ADC – a cooperative made with a mission extending  far beyond simply making handbags for Kate Spade and Company. This social enterprise is committed to empowering its employees by providing bi – weekly life skills trainings and employing over 150 women in a community where opportunities for women to gain full-time employment are almost non-existent.

Women working at the ADC Masoro Kate Spade factory.

The women from the cooperative come together bi-weekly on Friday afternoons to participate in the Life Skills Empowerment Program offered by the factory. In developing the program, ADC worked closely with Gardens for Health International (GHI) to incorporate cooking demonstrations, health, and nutrition lessons into their bi – weekly trainings. After becoming more aware of the importance of proper nutrition, concerns rose internally about workers not eating an adequate diet to support their health and dietary needs. Through this realization, the idea to create a nutrition-sensitive garden next to the factory was born. The garden would serve to support healthy diets and improve the wellbeing of ADC factory workers. In addition, the garden could  generate income for the cooperative by selling excess produce. Finally, the women would use the garden space to learn how to start their own home gardens and improve the nutrition of their families. Once again, Kate Spade and Company reached out to GHI for support on this project.

The factory employs women from the surrounding area of Masoro, located just outside of Kigali.

We broke ground for the garden project in early October. GHI designed the garden and management plan and began meeting with women from the cooperative who created a committee of artisans meant to be in charge of garden activities. These women were chosen to assist in maintenance of the garden and serve as peer educators to other women interested in learning more about agriculture. We hired external workers from the surrounding community to begin clearing and preparing the land. The following week, GHI staff went to the factory to teach bed building to the agriculture committee and the crew continued preparing the land for planting. Soon after, GHI returned to Masoro to acquire chicken manure from a local family and assist in planting the nutrient-dense crops chosen for the garden, including avocado trees, passion fruit, carrots, beets, orange flesh sweet potatoes, and pumpkins.

GHI staff visits the garden plot bi-weekly for consultation, and weeding. Above, the author works on a plot.

When choosing what to plant, GHI looked closely at what would be best for the health and nutrition of the women at the cooperative. In countries like Rwanda where rates of undernutrition are high, a major concern for women aged 15 – 49 is insufficient iron, with can result in anemia. Anemia can cause fatigue and weakness, headaches, dizziness, and shortness of breath. Nationally, it is estimated that 1 in 5 women aged 15 – 49 are anemic. This can affect performance and productivity at the workplace, which is not ideal for a high-speed factory environment. Knowing that proper nutrition can help combat this problem, GHI selected crops high in both iron and vitamin C, which helps increase the absorption of iron into the body. Since most of the women working at ADC are of childbearing age, GHI also considered which fruits and vegetables would be beneficial for pregnant women to consume. Avocados, for example, have more folate than any other fruit. Folic acid helps prevent birth defects of a baby’s brain and spinal cord. Vitamin A rich foods, such as orange flesh sweet potatoes and carrots, are also essential  for healthy vision and immune function.

Five women were elected to the agriculture committee for dedicated maintenance.

The women on the agriculture committee were heavily dedicated to working on the garden. Now, everything has been planted and the maintenance of the garden has been handed over to the cooperative, with bi-weekly support from GHI, providing garden labor and lessons on in season-care. After five months, when some of the crops are ready to harvest, GHI will provide nutrition trainings on the importance of consuming nutrient-dense food.

The biggest challenge GHI faces with this project is the expectation of garden maintenance. The women do not have enough time to maintain the garden on top of their regular work. After a full day of work in the factory, the women are less likely to engage in additional agricultural labor after work. As a result, GHI is trying to find a way these women can integrate their duties in the gardens into their official factory work. We hope to to encourage all women from the cooperative to get involved and learn to  reap future benefits from the garden for years to come if they put in work now. We also hope to inspire behavior change in the household by building on existing agricultural  skills and knowledge these women can take home with them.

 

Mulching the plots after weeding.

The garden project has been a wonderful partnership, made possible with the help of dedicated,  hard working people. As with any project, there are challenges that must be confronted, but they come hand-in-hand with tangible success. Today, our triumphs come in the form of germinating beets and the smiling faces of the five leading women working with GHI on the ADC garden. These small rewards make every challenge worth the effort. So, if you ever find yourself with a Kate Spade handbag draped on your shoulder labeled, “Made in Rwanda,” find assurance in knowing the women who made your handbag are being provided with knowledge and resources to live healthier lives.

 

Blog by Farm Fellow Jessie Kanter

Help ADC Masoro cultivate their garden with a donation