Can Ice Cream Help Pull Rwanda Out of Poverty?
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Motorcycle taxis zip along the narrow tarmac road from Butare, Rwanda’s second largest city, to the National University on the outskirts of town. Along the verge, clusters of students mosey towards campus while men on bicycles laden with sacks of beans cruise past a backdrop of terraced hills. About halfway between town and the university, the students pause at a modest yet modern white-stucco storefront where a hand-painted banner announces the arrival of Inzozi Nziza – Rwanda’s first local ice cream parlor.
In this small Central African nation best known for its horrific 1994 genocide, the significance of a new ice cream shop may not be immediately apparent to most. But to Odile Gakire Katese, the woman behind the shop – which opened June 5 and whose name translates as Sweet Dreams – the carefree pleasure that ice cream represents is exactly what Rwanda needs. “Life isn’t just about survival,” says Katese, who is also the artistic director at the University’s Centre for Arts and Drama. “It’s about living. And what better way to taste the sweetness of life than with some ice cream?”(See video: “Rwanda’s Cinema Under the Stars.”)
In one of the world’s poorest countries, with over 50% of its population living below the poverty line, Katese’s focus on happiness might seem an unaffordable luxury, and ice cream a bizarre means to achieve it. Not so, says Josh Ruxin, head of Rwanda Works, an NGO committed to improving health in part through expanding the country’s dairy industry. Ruxin calls the bias in development towards fighting HIV, improving maternal mortality rates, and helping children survive to the age of five “obvious.” But citing NGOs such as Film Aid International that focus on nurturing the mind as well as the body, he says that “in general in development we aim too low – it’s [viewed as] enough to address the most basic human needs and not these higher needs.”