Rwanda’s history is marred with the devastation of genocide and civil war. In 1994, the culmination of ethnic tension between minority group, Tutsi, and the majority, Hutu, resulted in the deaths of nearly 1 million Rwandans in three months. Catalysed by the assassination of Juvénal Habyarimana, then President of Rwanda, thousands of Tutsis and pro-peace Hutus were killed by Hutus in a mass genocide after being condemned as traitors.
Seeing an international need for help after these tragic events, Americans Dale Williams and his son Andrew Williams travelled to Goma, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1995 and 1996 to volunteer with Rwandan refugees. At the Mugunga Refugee Camp, Dale and Andrew Williams worked with refugees including orphans, the elderly and the disabled to help provide medical care. When these refugees returned to Rwanda, the father-son duo started the Koinonia Foundation to continue supporting Rwanda and assist in rebuilding the country by way of various education projects.
The organization’s beginnings and programs
The foundation’s head office is located in Grand Rapids, Michigan where Dale and Andrew are from, but their outpost in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, is where Andrew now resides full time to run the hands-on projects as the Koinonia Foundation’s President. It was initialized with education projects in Rwanda and has continued to grow into other schemes. “We started to supply computer labs and computers to rural schools, and when it was realized that many of them don’t have electricity we came up with a way to design and install a new solar system in these schools that would give enough power for lighting,” says Andrew Williams.
To date, the foundation has built or provided school supplies to seven schools. The schools have all been outfitted with solar panels, batteries, lights, power outlets and computers. The Koinonia Foundation has also built medical clinics in rural areas and provided equipment.
After a few years of working within the arena of rebuilding schools, Andrew notes that they noticed many students were using old kerosene lanterns to study at night. Extensive research has exemplified the detrimental effects of kerosene lamps on health and the Koinonia Foundation knew something had to be organized to try and resolve this issue. “The K-Light was designed as a solar rechargeable lantern which utilizes LED light,” says Williams. “We designed it based on what we saw as a need and also involved the local population, NGOs and engineers and really came up with something we are proud of.”
After the creation of the K-Light, the Koinonia Foundation team initialized the idea of the Beacon Program to sell the lanterns. “The Beacon program is set up to create cooperatives for women. With this in mind the Koinonia Foundation set up the Ingenzi K-Light Cooperative, which is a government registered cooperative where Rwandan women operate and own their own business with the support of the foundation,” says Williams.
The Koinana Foundation provides women with business training and grants participants six K-Lights which will be the beginning of her business. Within the program the women decide how to invest their profits and how to grow and sustain the business by purchasing more K-Lights that are bought at a reduced cost. From the K-Light initiative, these women have created a number of different sustainable businesses. “There is a store next door that a group of women started, selling second hand goods and there is also a café and restaurant which has become quite successful,” says Williams. “We provide ongoing support to these women in regard to business training and guidance, but we don’t run their businesses for them and it is very much their own.”
Another development for the Koinonia Foundation is the Wall of Words program which was formed to increase literacy in Rwanda. The program began when the foundation sent 20,000 books to various schools. “The main idea was to start putting up reading rooms for schools and promoting the idea that reading is fun and to promote a lifelong love of learning,” says Williams.
What Williams hopes to see happen is for school children to have access to a simple version of the Kindle or the iPad, with the foundation providing a hard drive so students can all have access to a network where literature is available to the masses.
Murika Procurement and Logistics
Williams has also set up a for-profit organization called Murika Procurement and Logistics (MPL), an arm to the Koinonia Foundation. Through MPL, the company takes the K-Light and a new water treatment and provides them to rural villages. “MPL works with the foundation and our goal is to take these necessary products like the K-Light or a water treatment product and set up distribution systems. We want to sell products that can make life easier for people in the developing world,” says Williams.
Every year the Koinonia Foundation has volunteers and interns who come to Rwanda to support its various causes. University of Michigan’s MBA program is one such program whose students come and intern as business consultants for the foundation and MPL. Nick Danoff, one of the volunteers this year, says, “Our team has done a lot of research in the first week or two and is trying to set up new business ideas and get a better sense of how MPL can have an impact on the community and grow in the future.”
With products like the K-Light and the Beacon Program, Danoff sees positive effects for Rwanda and its people. “The Beacon program that MPL is going to be using to get the products out there is a really exciting way to help economic development while taking an entrepreneurial approach,” he says.
With the help of volunteers like Danoff, MPL and the Koinonia Foundation have received ongoing support in its business strategy. Williams notes one of the Koinonia Foundation’s major goals is to create sustainable businesses and sustainable communities through projects such as MPL and Beacon. He notes one of his favourite aspects of the job is seeing the people that it has a positive effect on. “Anytime that you assemble a solar system and see a child turn on a computer for the first time and their face lights up, it’s really amazing,” he says. In a modern world, the little things we take for granted such as computers, are sometimes a rare commodity for villagers in places like Rwanda.
Expansion and Rwanda’s landscape
Though the home base for the Koinonia Foundation is Rwanda, the foundation has goals of implementing the Beacon program in other countries. Rwanda has transformed since the devastation of genocide and civil war in the early 1990s. During times of rebuilding, the country has garnered foreign investment and international aid to assist in infrastructure development.
Williams’ notes the government’s plans for improvement in education. “The goals for these education plans will be for the year 2020. They want to build a lot more schools and make sure more people are on the electricity grid,” he says.
Danoff notes the increasing development and growth in Rwanda. “I have seen a lot of development here in Kigali in particular. There is a lot of continuous construction and improvements on infrastructure. There are a lot of foreigners that are developing business here and I have been really impressed with the level of development and the obvious signs that point to continuous development.” Danoff, however, points out the difficulties of making sure that profits incurred from infrastructure development go toward the everyday people of Rwanda and not just the upper class. “There are a lot of non-profits here that try and ensure the country grows economically and benefits the everyday people of Rwanda, not just the well-to-do,” he says.
In a short amount of time the Koinonia Foundation has changed the lives of many Rwandans with the help of Williams and his team. The organization has created a space for itself in Rwanda as a place which nurtures and supports Rwandan citizens, children and those in rural villages that wouldn’t have access to computers or electricity without the help of organizations like this and its commitment to developing and rebuilding a country.