By Kagondu Njagi
KIGALI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Time is a precious commodity for traders, but Nyirabahi Levistine spares four hours per month to join community improvement meetings in Kigali's Nyamirambo neighborhood.
Every final Saturday of the month, Levistine and her neighbors meet in a public park for "muganda" – what she describes as "a cultural practice where people in rural areas help each other by sharing food, for example, or through communal work."
Now the cheerful fruit vendor is among a growing number of Kigali residents bringing "muganda" to the city to solve community problems like garbage accumulation, instead of enduring a sometimes lengthy wait for public services.
The meeting, of about 12 people, starts with a group prayer. Then the group elects a leader for the day who takes attendance and assigns duties – such as ensuring street lights work, collecting garbage or cleaning waterways.
The group reconvenes two hours later to discuss what progress has been made, what community issues still need to be resolved, and how much budget is available to do so.
"Those who can (do so) donate time, equipment – such as shovels – or cash to hire extra help from contractors," Levistine told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Hiring a garbage collector can cost between 1,500 and 6,000 Rwanda francs (about $2-8) a day, but Levistine thinks it is a cost worth paying because it helps young people – who make up most of the cooperative's contractors – earn an income.
Francis Solinana agrees. His community cooperative, Zibanga Gacheche (named after its neighborhood), has been collecting waste and recycling it into handicraft like baskets for the last four years.
"I co-founded this group so that I could get a job and make products that promote my culture and are environmentally friendly," says the 26-year-old. "We don't use plastic, for example."
FROM COMMUNAL WORK TO BUSINESS
Rangela Bruno, a consultant for the mayor's office in Kigali, said the city has made progress in managing waste – but there's still plenty of room for community projects.
"It is small enterprises and initiatives like muganda that give Kigali its environmental spark," he said.
Community cooperatives have been recycling waste for the last decade, he explained, with some – such as the Gisozi cooperatives on Kigali's outskirts – even evolving into big companies.
"Some recycle polythene into farming bags while others turn organic waste into charcoal and briquettes, for example," Bruno added.
For now, the mayor's office is supporting muganda organizations by allowing the groups to meet in public parks, but it has bigger plans.
"Our next move is to work with the cooperatives and youth to turn waste into biogas", said Bruno. "I believe it should be done by the cooperatives because through them youth raise money and hone their skills."
However, Kigali's poorer communities – especially women – say they often find themselves unable to run small businesses due to a lack of finance.
According to the Rwanda Development Board, women's community initiatives access only about 1 percent of government funding for small and medium-sized enterprises.
"Women here struggle to get loans because they do not have collateral like a title deed to act as a guarantee," said Claire Akamanzi, the development board's chief operating officer.
She hopes the establishment by the government of a business development fund in 2011 will reduce banks' exposure to unpaid loans and encourage lending without collateral.
Although Levistine's fresh fruit is keeping her afloat for now, "I could do with a loan to venture into bigger ventures like processing environmental waste," she said.
"I have the skills to diversify my business by investing in waste recycling," she added. "But capital is still hard to come by for women."
(Reporting by Kagondu Njagi, editing by Zoe Tabary and Laurie Goering; please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)