Woman helps Rwandans through fair trade, not aid
BY TAKESHI KAMIYA STAFF WRITER
- [名]1 《植物》サイザル［シサル］アサ：リュウゼツランの一種.2 [U]サイザル繊維(sisal hemp).
Rie Ozawa holds an agaseke, a handmade sisal basket from Rwanda, at her shop in Shizuoka. (Takeshi Kamiya)
Editor's note: This is the first in a series on Japanese people oriented toward the world.
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SHIZUOKA--Younger generations of Japanese have long been criticized as being self-absorbed navel-gazers, never looking beyond Japan and lacking a spirit of challenge.
But Rie Ozawa, a 38-year-old mother of two boys, is not among them.
Ozawa is president of Ruise B, a company she established in Shizuoka in early 2009 to import and sell "agaseke"--traditional handmade sisal hemp baskets in Rwanda--and other basketry.
The finely woven products are sold in 50 outlets, including department stores and interior decor shops, across Japan.
Last month, the company sold 370 agaseke and other baskets.
"I am happy (when I see one basket sell) because that allows me to order one more from the (Rwandan) women," she said.
She first came across the lidded gourd-shaped baskets, which come in shades such as red, white, black and natural hemp, at an African festival and trade show in Yokohama in May 2008.
Ozawa, a native of Shizuoka, opened up a shop to sell products from her family's furniture company after graduating from an interior design professional school. She decided that she wanted to add African goods to the store's lineup.
She was mesmerized by the agaseke, which were originally used to carry gifts to royal families in the country. The basket's motif is used on the Rwandan national emblem and bank notes.
"They were exceedingly beautiful, both in shape and design," Ozawa recalled.
At the same show, she met a woman named Louise who was destined to change her life.
The Rwandan woman was then 39, and also raising two boys. Her husband had been killed in the 1994 genocide and civil strife that left an estimated 1 million people dead.
Ozawa told Louise that she wanted to buy agaseke. Louise responded by asking her to become her agent in Japan to sell agaseke and other artifacts.
"I said 'no' then because our shop was too small," Ozawa said. "But I could not forget about agaseke and Louise. I started looking up Rwanda on the Internet."
In the course of her research, she became acquainted with a Japanese couple living in Rwanda.
Through their correspondence, Ozawa learned that Louise and other Rwandan women who lost husbands in the genocide had formed a cooperative to earn a living through making and selling baskets.
She also learned that the government-affiliated Japan External Trade Organization was inviting applicants for a program that assists Japanese companies that import and sell goods from developing countries.
The program aims to spur trade by developing and importing merchandise tailored to Japanese consumers from developing countries, which in turn contributes to the local communities of those countries.
JETRO provides financial support for domestic and overseas travel and costs for development, import and promotion under the program.
It also offers technical know-how and advice on how to operate and manage the new business.
The size of a business does not matter, but an applicant's business must be incorporated.
So Ozawa set up her company in late February 2009 to apply. To her pleasant surprise, she was selected as one of JETRO's eight projects for fiscal 2009.
She named her company Ruise B after her newfound friend Louise. She substituted an "R" for Rwanda and added B for basket, she said.
She set out to conduct fair trade, importing the goods at prices higher than they usually fetch so that the workers making them would not fall into poverty.
"But we don't want to emphasize the fair trade angle on our website (www.ruiseb.jp/home.html) too much because we want our customers to be enthralled by the merchandise itself," Ozawa said.
To persuade picky consumers to spend, it is imperative that the products be of high quality, she said.
But after importing her first samples, Ozawa quickly realized that the challenge would be formidable.
"Their notion of size is different from that of Japanese," she said. "Even if the goods are labeled size M, they are not all the same size."
She had stomachaches at times when producers did not meet delivery deadlines.
But if they don't sell the goods, they cannot earn money.
"They may think I am too exacting," she said. "But I decided not to buy any item that does not meet our standard of quality, even if a woman spent a week to make it."
She feared that only thrusting Japanese consumers' finicky demands on the Rwandan workers could harm their motivation.
So, when she visited the country for the first time in August 2009, she brought along a slide show about Japan, showing its yellow-tinted leaves in autumn, snow-covered hot spring spas in winter as well as Kabuki performances so that her producers could have some idea of what Japan is like.
Ozawa initially planned to ask Louise's cooperative to produce the agaseke that she sells.
But Louise's group, with its technical assistance from Germany and having exported to Europe, is actually better off financially than other cooperatives.
"I knew my decision likely disappointed Louise and is against business principles, but I instead asked the most impoverished 16 groups to produce agaseke for us," she said.
The women in those groups nodded and loudly chanted "Business!" and waved their arms in victory when Ozawa suggested that she preferred to be their business partner, not a giver of assistance.
In all, more than 500 women are involved in the cooperatives that do business with Ozawa.
She has seen the tangible results the women experienced as a result of their relationship with her company. Some have been able to obtain health insurance, while others can now buy more food than before.
But not all the stories are encouraging.
Some women are too accustomed to receiving assistance. One woman who came to a technical training demanded, "Why don't you pay me training fees?"
Some women are better skilled at weaving than others and earn more as a result. Disparity in earnings is a sensitive issue that could pit one woman against the others.
A basket weaver with long experience was sent to teach beginners. But she refused to train them adequately. Asked why, she said, "If I did that, I would end up having less income."
Ozawa said it is wrong to assume that only special people can enter a business with a developing county.
"I don't speak English, and I started having contact with the outside world only in my late 30s," she said.
"Before that, I had little connection even with the rest of Japan beyond Shizuoka Prefecture, much less the world."
She said she had long felt somewhat discontented with running her interior goods shop.
"I asked myself why I wanted to engage in this business of selling," she said.
"After going through a long period of dissatisfaction, I arrived at my current business. I think people can open a door to the world, no matter how old they are, if they choose to do so."