• Shelbye Renfro

Our Story

Hey there!

I'm Shelbye, the co-founder and managing director of Kundwa Collective, and I'd like to share our story of becoming.

Kundwa Collective is a passion project of Word Made Flesh Rwanda--an organization that has been serving women on the margins in Kigali, Rwanda since 2015. Over the last few years, we have tread the dusty pathways of an urban slum called Kangondo as we met women and tried to build a community of safety and trust together.

We've met weekly with a group of women from this vulnerable community for the last four years as a savings group. Each woman comes and brings what she has to save for that week, and it gets put into a communal savings account that she can take loans from until she receives her savings with interest at the end of the year. It's a simple system that can have incredible impact for people who don't typically have easy access to credit or bank accounts. We've also trained and supported some entrepreneurs in our community as they chased after dreams of self-sufficiency in a city with few job opportunities.

However, this space has become so much more than just an economic empowerment program. As we gather each week to talk about the neighborhood news, read the bible together, or lift someone up in prayer before we deposit our savings, we've also shared struggles and carried each other's burdens. We've walked together through illness, difficult pregnancies, abusive relationships. We've also walked together through weddings, success in business, welcoming newborn babies and watching those babies grow. Joy and sorrow always mixed together to create something strong and enduring.

It was in this community that our hearts started to stir towards creating something more. We were seeing so many women struggle to make ends meet. We were offering programs in economic empowerment that would help women identify and work with the resources available to them, but that did address the greater issue of the lack of jobs accessible to this demographic of women.

It was through a friend reaching out that we got our start. My friend, Jamie, runs a social business called DuHope that offers dignified employment to women in prostitution in Kigali. they make really fun and beautiful jewelry, but that season they were behind on their production and needed some help. She reached out to ask if we knew of some women who might be able to learn a skill quickly to pick up some of the work on their leaf earrings. What started as a one-time job soon became bigger as our two organizations started dreaming about how we could grow together.

We invited five women to join us--Delphina, Ruth, Consolée, Florence, and Marie-Louise--all women from our savings groups who we've known for a few years. We invited them to learn a new skill and make some money, but we didn't know if we could offer a permanent job to them yet. They said yes, and faithfully showed up whenever we had orders to fill.

Finally, in May 2019 we took the leap and started our own company. We promised those five women that we would have consistent work for them. We've designed new products, trying to find things that we didn't already see in Rwandan markets. Products that would represent us--new, unique, courageous.

We asked the artisans to give themselves a name. They chose kundwa, which means beloved in Kinyarwanda. this was when all my doubts and fears about this venture washed away and I knew we were on the right path, but that's a story for another day.

So, that's us. We are a community of women for women. We believe that we are better together, which is why everything we do revolves around relationships and community-building. We believe that everyone has potential, even those who are broken, battered, and forgotten. That's how we ended up in this community on the margins, built friendships there, and began working to create opportunities for women and their families to thrive. Every purchase from Kundwa Collective offers hope, dignity, and abundant life to the women-artisans who bravely stepped into this journey with us.

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