Two hours north of Kigali, past fields of tea farms and towns cascading down hillsides, is the rural village of Butare nestled in one of the many valleys of Rwanda. Rich with deep red soil and layered with every shade of green, Butare is the home of 87 entrepreneurs in Village Enterprise’s poverty graduation program, including Bellancile.
Bellancile, 42, is the mother of six children ranging in age from 18 years to one month. Before joining Village Enterprise, everything in her household—from feeding her family to affording school fees—depended entirely on her husband. But with only one income, they struggled to sustain their growing family’s needs. Bellancile recalls, “When I used to ask my husband for money, it would create conflict.” Their lack of a sufficient income also began forcing the family to skip meals, forgo necessary household items, and begin pulling their children from school as they couldn’t afford school fees.
Bellancile, Pascasie, and Alphonsine holding hands next to their retail business, Twizerane.
But in March of 2022, things started to change for Bellancile and her family when she joined Village Enterprise’s poverty graduation program. Throughout several months of business and financial literacy education, Bellancile learned how to start and operate a small business, as well as the power of working alongside others. Together with two women in her community—Alphonsine, 34, and Pascasie, 60—they completed a cost-benefit and market analysis and determined a retail shop had the potential to do well in Butare. Under guidance from their Village Enterprise business mentor, they used their $180 USD business grant to launch their store, Twizerane—a Rwandan word meaning let us trust each other. “For the first time in my life, I started believing that I could do this,” says Bellancile, remembering what it meant to receive their business grant and open their store.
They started off small, only selling a local sorghum soda, but their prime location and in-demand product quickly launched them into popularity within the community. With their steady stream of profits, they began expanding their retail business to sell additional items such as rice, cassava flour, cooking oil, sugar, and other sodas—all things their village uses on a regular basis, but are sometimes difficult to access being so remote. Originally valued at $180 USD, their business is now worth $600, a 233% increase only six months after starting their business.
While some business groups expand into new business ventures together, Bellancile, Alphonsine, and Pascasie are happy keeping their joint venture a retail store. Instead, they’re using the profits from Twizerane to each start their own businesses at the household level, helping to diversify their individual incomes even further. Bellancile recently bought a pig and is excited to begin rearing and selling livestock, alongside Alphonsine and Pascasie who have also done the same.
Bellancile shows off the pig she purchased using the profits from her retail business.
Bellancile graduated from our program last month, and life looks much different for her now. “I used to think that a woman eats because her husband worked, but now I’m the one feeding my family,” states Bellancile proudly. She adds, “Since we’ve started our retail business, we haven’t missed a meal in our house.” Not only are her children eating consistent and healthy meals, but they’re back in school in brand new shoes and uniforms. Through her business savings group, she’s been able to save up enough money to purchase household items such as cups, utensils, and saucepans, but her greatest achievement so far has been renovating her home. Where there once was a dirt floor and walls littered with holes, now exists a smooth, cement floor and sturdy, hole-free walls. Since the renovations, her home has become a great sense of pride to her and her family.
“I used to think that a woman eats because her husband worked, but now I’m the one feeding my family,” states Bellancile proudly.
Bellancile stands outside of her home which she’s renovating using the profits from her businesses.
Apart from the assets she’s been able to purchase, her relationships have also flourished this past year. Now that her husband no longer feels the pressure of providing for his family alone, their relationship has improved substantially. In fact, she says it feels like they’re newlyweds again and she lights up each time he calls her “Honey”—which, according to Bellancile, happens a lot these days. Even Bellancile’s eldest son—having noticed his mother’s growth and success over the past year—has decided that when he graduates from school, he wants to study commerce and be a successful businessperson like her.
Bellancile—a woman who just one year ago had no financial mobility or standing in her community—now sees herself as a mentor and leader with newfound confidence and abilities. And she isn’t alone—in 2018, Innovation for Poverty Action published an independent randomized controlled trial which found that our program leads to increases in mental health, well-being, and sense of economic standing for women.
For Bellancile, it’s important that the knowledge she’s gained through Village Enterprise doesn’t stop with her. “Everything that I’ve learned, I want to share it with someone else,” she says. In fact, Bellancile has big plans for her new household business—she’s already hired three women from her community to help tend to her livestock and crops, and is looking forward to passing on what she’s learned through Village Enterprise so these women can change their lives and break the cycle of extreme poverty for their families, too.
Pascasie, Pascasie’s grandson, Bellancile, and Alphonsine inside of their retail store, proudly holding their business record book.
Our Commitment to Empowering Women
This is what happens when you empower women—you empower entire communities through them. When women are provided opportunities to launch sustainable businesses, save for the future, and take on leadership positions, they’re more likely to invest back into their children and families, helping to break the generational traps of poverty. “This is why addressing gender equality and investing in women is at the core of Village Enterprise’s mission to end extreme poverty,” says Nelly Munge, Village Enterprise Technical Advisor for Gender, Youth, and Social Inclusion. “When women like Bellancile are empowered, everyone benefits—children, families, and entire communities.”
Because women in rural communities across Africa are more vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, conflict, global pandemics, and inflation, they are disproportionately affected by extreme poverty. That’s why Village Enterprise is intentional about equipping women with the best resources and skills to thrive in the face of a changing environment and unexpected challenges. In fact, 82% of Village Enterprise entrepreneurs are women. “Even though our program has proven so impactful for women, we’re always looking at how we can improve. That’s why we are continuing to research the barriers that women face,” explains Nelly. “At the end of our program, we don’t want to see women experience any financial limits.”
For Bellancile, this program has changed the trajectory of her life and the lives of her children. The same is true for her business partners, Pascasie and Alphonsine. “Our lives are changed, all three of us,” says Bellancille. Six months into operating their business and already moving to diversify into new revenue streams—in many ways Bellancile is just getting started. “I can see that my future is bright.”
Rulindo district in northern Rwanda—the home of Bellancile, Pascasie, and Alphonsine.
Partnering for Greater Impact
The role women play in ending extreme poverty is critical, but the complex needs of women and girls requires a tailored, collaborative approach. This is why Village Enterprise is partnering with leading organizations, government entities, and funders to empower as many women as possible. While the core of this approach is our cost-effective, data-driven poverty graduation program, we work with partners to address the unique needs of each community by layering additional components into our curriculum; this can include education on regionally-specific agricultural practices for communities dealing with shifting weather patterns, cash transfers to help with food consumption and medical care for communities affected by chronic rates of acute child malnutrition, menstrual health education designed to eliminate menstrual taboos and stigmas, and more.