UNDP Africa director and UNDP Rwanda CO posing with visually impaired children from Hillside Hope

Days before the YouthConnekt Africa Summit, the Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa, Ms. Ahunna Eziakonwa paid an official country visit to the Rwanda country office. Ms. Eziakonwa spent two days with the UNDP country team traveling through the Northern Province to visit UNDP supported projects and meet some YouthConnekt programme beneficiaries. 

The first visit was to the Blessings School for the Visually Impaired (BSVI) in Musanze. The school educates children with visual impairments that come from financially challenged families. It was founded in 2015 by Jean-Bosco Ntakirutimana and his wife, Providence Nzayisenga. After their visually impaired daughter, Hannah Blessing, was born, the parents found it difficult to find schools in their area that could accommodate their daughter’s needs and provide quality education. Blessing, as she is fondly called, is the only surviving child of triplets that were born prematurely. Bosco and Providence mobilized a few other concerned parents in the community and together they founded the school. BSVI is currently being supported through the UNDP-RGB Rwanda Civil Society Organization (CSO) Strengthening programme, which has helped the school double its student body and acquire special learning equipment for the children.

A child with visual impairment and albinism practicing braille reading skills at the Hillside Hope school for visual impaired

While visiting the school, Ms. Eziakonwa spent time inside several of the dimly lit classrooms, observing as teachers taught math and writing. The classrooms are kept dark so that students with more severe visual impairments won’t be bothered by harsh overhead lighting. The children were being taught to read and write in braille. In the writing class, the teacher dictated passages which the children were then instructed to write down in braille. The teacher then went around the room and checked the braille inscriptions to make sure there were no mistakes. 

Having teachers that are professionally trained to teach braille is critical for the success of children with visual disabilities. A solid education helps put these children on an even playing field with children without disabilities. It also opens the door to equal opportunities in society and greater personal freedom and security.

Ms. Eziakonwa was impressed by how eager the schoolchildren were to learn, and how intensely they competed for the teacher to call on them during their lessons. Later, when the students were gathered in the assembly area, she spoke to them at length. She commended them on overcoming so many barriers at such a tender age. The Director then asked the students to raise their hands if they wanted to become doctors or lawyers or teachers or even the President of Rwanda. Almost all the children raised their hands.

“As human beings we are all equal and everyone should have the opportunity to be their best selves. It is possible, you can do anything you want, you just have to believe in yourself and your abilities,” she said, noting that the role of government, UNDP and other partners was to help ensure that every person gets an equal opportunity to realize their potential.

Blessing school students at the courtyard assembly

Later in the week Ms. Eziakonwa visited the Heroes Day Care Centre in Gikondo, Kigali. The centre cares for children with severe disabilities. It provides special education along with physical and occupational therapy. The centre tries to provide highly individualized care, keeping a ratio of one teacher to four pupils.

Heroes Day Care and the Blessing School for the Visually Impaired are two of six NGOs supported under the joint UNDP/RGB programme to provide services to people living with disabilities. UNDP has also partnered with the government and other stakeholders to develop inclusive policies and programmes. Some work includes updating national laws to be in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disability. UNDP has also supported the establishment of an institutional framework on the rights of the disabled through the Ministry of Local Government and the National Council on People with Disability.

The Regional Director and UNDP team also visited three entrepreneurs that received funding and mentorship from the YouthConnekt Africa program. The first group of entrepreneurs’ study at Musanze Integrated Polytechnic Regional Centre. Three classmates came up with the idea to start a sustainable furniture company. The trio were interested in sustainable design and after doing their research, they found that timber was usually used for outdoor furniture even though it was neither durable nor environmentally sustainable.

Ms. Eziakonwa took a photo with the entrepreneurs and UNDP Rwanda while sitting on the furniture made by the Reinforced
Concrete Garden Furniture Ltd company.

Their company, Reinforced Concrete Garden Furniture Ltd, uses concrete and reinforced steel to make outdoor furniture. Concrete furniture is weather resistant and is better for the environment. The company also used locally sourced material like volcanic rocks for furniture building. Through the support of YouthConnekt Africa, the company has been able to scale operations and hire seventeen workers.

After meeting with the young men and viewing the variety of products they’ve produced, Ms. Eziakonwa then visited the headquarters of Cephas Nshimyumuremyi’s beauty company Ubaranga Products Ltd. The company creates all-natural beauty products like aloe vera gel, castor oil and herbal soaps.

Ms. Eziakonwa, accompanied by Cephas’s two little daughters, received a tour of the building to see how products like the Ubaranga aloe vera gel are produced and bottled. The majority of Nshimyumuremyi’s staff is female. He told the Director that he wants his daughters to grow up around strong women and has therefore tried to economically empower the women in his community.

Ms. Eziakonwa also met with Assumpta Uwamariya. Uwamariya won the 2016 YouthConnekt award for best young innovator for her beetroot wine business. With her 5 million Rwf (about 6000 US$) prize money she scaled her business, Karisimbi Wines, and was able to hire more workers. She has now expanded production from wines to juices.

Ms. Uwamariya and one of her employee processing the wine

Ms. Eziakonwa given a guided tour of the Kalisimbi wines processing

The Director was impressed by the sustainable business practices being employed by Youthconnekt entrepreneurs. In a later media interview, she commented, “Climate change is affecting all parts of the globe but it is of particular concern to Africa. Natural resources such as land, water, air and forests are being polluted and degraded. If these natural resources are not managed in a sustainable manner this will curtail Africa’s growth.” She commended the YouthConnekt Rwanda programme which has, to date, helped create over 8,300 jobs in Rwanda.

In the evening, the Director gathered with the UNDP Rwanda staff to have a fireside chat about women in the UN system. She spoke about gender equality and the role senior staff should play in supporting women’s leadership development. She asked the senior staff gathered to advocate for and support young women in the workplace, to help lift them up, and to fearlessly advocate for gender equality.

The following day, a visit was paid to a social healing ceremony taking place at a prison in Musanze. The initiative is part of the UNDP supported Access to Justice programme. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsi. Many prisoners with long-term sentences are being released this year. UNDP Rwanda has worked with partners such as the Rwanda Correctional Services, the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission, and Prison Fellowship Rwanda, to provide support for social healing, reconciliation, and reintegration of prisoners into the community. The Director was moved by a speech given by a young man that was orphaned by the genocide. He now volunteers to promote the message of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Ms. Eziakonwa interacting with a survivor of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis who testified during the event.

Back in Kigali, during the three-day YouthConnekt Summit, the Director held discussions with senior government officials including H.E. President Paul Kagame; Minister of Finance, Hon. Dr. Uzziel Ndagijimana; Minister of Youth, Hon. Rosemary Mbabazi; and CEO of the Rwanda Governance Board, Dr. Usta Kayitesi.

During the meetings, the Director discussed strategies to accelerate Africa’s development and the role the UN and UNDP can play in supporting countries achieve their development ambitions. The Director expressed her appreciation to the Government of Rwanda for another enormously successful YouthConnekt Africa Summit. She pledged UNDP’s continued support for scaling-up YouthConnekt in Rwanda and across the continent.

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