‘Agaseke’: Prosperity through the ages

‘Agaseke’: Prosperity through the ages

By Babu Emile

Historically, social status in Rwanda was symbolized through the possession of cattle; however, elaborate hairstyles and distinctive dress-code were equally symbols of high social status. Social and economic functions such as overseeing the livestock and breadwinning were reserved for men whereas women the household and raised children. After the day’s chores, women put their creativity to the test through basket weaving. Without exaggeration, the product was always a beautifully woven ‘gaseke’, a neat and unique small basket that you found ornamented in most Rwandan households.

Today a lot has changed in Rwanda; multi million dollar corporate companies are mushrooming through foreign direct investment, mergers and takeovers as the nation emerges into an economic power on the continent. Men and women equally are assuming pivotal roles in the political and economic transformation. Even with all this change, the agaseke is still found present in most Rwandan households.

Not willing to miss such an opportunity RIEPA (the Rwanda Investment and Export Promotion Agency) decided to market and sell the Gaseke to the rest of the world. “The world’s largest department store with approximately 850 stores in the United States”, Macys; has opted to market and sell the ‘Agaseke’.

Business Rwanda interviewed Terry J. Lundgren the CEO, Chairman of the Board, President, and Director at Macys inc., the parent company of Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s department stores on the progress of the Gaseke.

‘We started with small business at 50,000 dollars just to try the business four years ago, then moved to 300,000 dollars in retail sales in America, moved to 750,000 US Dollars last year. This year we are projecting 1.5 million dollars in Rwandan baskets which is double the business of last year. The quality of these baskets which is really important is of the highest standard.’

Terry also revealed that the Agaseke was set to meet another major breakthrough. The worlds Richest African American, Oprah Winfrey has picked interest in the baskets and wants to promote them on her highest rated talk show in television history. “Arguably the world’s most powerful woman” according to CNN and Time.com, an endorsement by Oprah could change the course of history for the Agaseke turning it to a global must-have.

‘She loves these baskets and wants to get involved in promoting them on her tv show and that will just grow the sales even greater because of the more marketing exposure. So we believe that business will continue to increase,’ Says Terry.

To meet the demand of the global market, the government, on March 23rd this year inaugurated a Women’s handicrafts centre in the town of Rwamagana. The new centre was built in a joint initiative by Rwanda Investment and Export Promotion Agency (RIEPA) and the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, Cooperatives, Tourism and Investment Promotion. State Minister for Industry and Investment Promotion, Vincent Karega was the chief guest at the event.

“We have found the markets. Emphasis right now should be on quality management so that we do not lose our market. When we say we are going to deliver we must deliver on time,” the Minister Karega said.

Each district is targeting production of 500 baskets per week and all together the eastern province is targeting 3,500 baskets per week. 500 women are being targeted in each district to individually produce one basket a week.

The symbolism of the agaseke stretches back to Rwanda’s subsistence economy. Traditionally, large baskets stored grain which was used during periods of scarcity. A community with enough grain in storage had the resources to survive during long periods of hunger. Such a community was considered wealthy and prosperous. Equally, the ‘Gaseke’ is an icon of fortune, affluence and success.

The evolution of the Gaseke is as remarkable as Rwandan history itself. Will the folklore icon turned mass-consumer good live up to its promise by creating wealth for Rwanda? Will it supersede its traditional symbolism to become a tangible basketful of dollars for Rwandan households and the economy at large? So far so good

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