A collective providing transport via industrial-sized wheelchairs offers a low-cost alternative for those trading goods between Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. Owned by its disabled workers, it unites Rwandans and Congolese in a shared business venture.
RWANDA-DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO BORDER — All day long, a constant stream of trade crisscrosses between Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and neighboring Rwanda. Goma, the provincial capital of DRC’s North Kivu, lies across the border from Rwanda’s town of Gisenyi, capital of Rubavu District, at what is commonly known as La Petite Barrière.
During any time of the day, especially between 6:00 and 10:00 a.m., people are in a hurry here, racing against the clock as if there is not a minute to lose. Some carry round plastic washbasins full of salted fish, fruit or vegetables. Others carry bags of cereal or fruit on their backs or heads.
Two young men in the crowd push a large tri-cornered wheelchair, with a disabled woman at the wheel. Zena Mukabasebya, a mother of six, steers across the border with the morning’s cargo — dozens of large boxes of juice.
Janviere Uwimana, GPJ Rwanda
Mukabasebya, 35, is a member of a cross-border wheelchair transport collective — the Coopérative de Transporteurs Transfrontaliers de Rubavu (COTTRARU). The collective employs its members, all of whom are disabled. The huge wheelchairs provide a low-cost alternative to motored vehicles and for many years enjoyed the advantage of being a tax-free way to export products across the border.
Though the tax-free advantage vanished in the fall (DRC and Rwanda have agreed to remove taxes for many goods crossing the border because of conflicts), traders say the wheelchair transport still makes sense. Wheelchair transport costs between $2 and $2.50 for a 25-kilogram (55-pound) bag of wheat flour, while the same bag in a car would cost $3.50.
An industrial-size wheelchair can transport up to 50 bags at once, so the savings add up.
Jean Claude Rugambwa, 45, the president of COTTRARU, says wheelchairs have ferried cross-border trade as far back as the 1980s, and money is not the only reward. There’s a social advantage too: Co-op members treat one another as brothers and sisters and work together without regard to their Congolese and Rwandan nationalities.
“Here, we bear no ill will, we bear no grudge. If there are 10 wheelchairs, I authorize five Congolese and five Rwandans to load goods,” Rugambwa says.
Wheelchair driver Mukabasebya says she was determined “to prove to those who used to make fun of me that I was capable despite my disability.” Disabled since she contracted childhood polio, she says she was told her future would be bleak. “People never called me by my name, Zena, and [they] made fun of me by using degrading nicknames to refer to me,” she says. “I eventually fell prey to the feelings of incompetence.”
Her treatment was not uncommon. Rwanda’s 2012 census recorded 446,453 — or 5 percent of the population — as having one or more disabilities. Others were born with disabilities or paralyzed or deformed due to diseases or accidents.
This has driven the government of Rwanda to aid people with disabilities and create associations and cooperatives through which they receive support and their abilities are valued.
Janviere Uwimana, GPJ Rwanda
Initially, there were two cooperatives, one called Twifatanye, a Kinyarwanda word meaning “Let’s cooperate,” or “let’s share,” which brought together persons with disabilities, and another, the Coopérative de Vétérans Handicapés de Gisenyi (COVEHAGI), or Gisenyi Cooperative of Handicapped War Veterans. Twifatanye and COVEHAGI later merged into one cooperative, COTTRARU — the Rubavu Cross-Border Transport Cooperative.
COTTRARU has 139 members: 96 Rwandans and 43 Congolese. In the beginning, the membership fee was 18,000 Rwandan francs ($22). It’s now 500,000 Rwandan francs ($600). Each day, members earn $10 or $12, depending on their cargo. When members need funds, the cooperative lends them cash interest-free.
The cooperative has two plots of land. On one plot, it is erecting a building using its own funds, without bank financing. The first floor of the building will serve as a multipurpose space, and the upper floor as a lodging space. Another plot is planted with bananas, and the cooperative earns 600,000 Rwandan francs ($726) per year from the fruit sales.
After completing the building, the cooperative will have two goals: constructing a center for disabled children, and helping members who are renters become homeowners.
Mukabasebya bought a wheelchair in 2010 with profits she made from selling children’s clothes.
“When I was still a stay-at-home mom, my husband alone was obliged to cater to me and our kids, but today I’ve helped him finish our house, and I’ve purchased another plot,” she says.
Bahati Magera, who belongs to COTTRARU, says he has made significant progress in his life thanks to his membership. “If I hadn’t joined this cooperative, I would never have built my own house. Today, I have five houses,” he says.
Dative Nyirasaba, who owns a small business in which she carries goods on her head in a plastic basin across the border, says the wheelchair transport “has contributed to valuing disabled persons, and everyone is envious of them.” If she weren’t already married, she says, she would consider the male drivers husband material and “make romantic advances towards them.”
Innocent Ndagijimana, 37, who is disabled and coordinates for the Rubavu District, says the wheelchair co-op has enabled disabled people to achieve new status in their communities.
“Many of us were forced to beg to survive, but today we’ve become bosses ourselves,” he says.
Janviere Uwimana, GPJ Rwanda
Janviere Uwimana, GPJ, translated some interviews from Kinyarwanda to French. Sylvestre Ndahayo translated the article from French.