Teaching Change through Engineering: The Story of Rwanda’s Women

What’s in an education? It’s something that many of us take for granted and it can be surprising just how much impact even a little education can have.

In a conversation with Marie Planchard, director of the education portfolio at Dassault Systèmes SOLIDWORKS, she brought up a story to illustrate this impact.

It was about a young man from Vietnam. One day, he decided to leave his village and go to school. There, he got a technical education with SOLIDWORKS. Like so many before him, his education gave him the opportunity to go out and do great things.

Instead, he chose to stay and make a difference in his own village. Gathering coconut rope was a very dangerous task, so to make life better for his fellow villagers, he designed a machine using his technical knowledge that would gather and spool this rope for them.

With his education, he made a difference—and he’s not the only one.


A Population in Need

Although the numbers are improving, education is still unattainable for many women and girls in Rwanda.
Although the numbers are improving, education is still unattainable for many women and girls in Rwanda.

In 1994, Rwanda experienced a terrible tragedy. The genocide, a product of the ongoing Rwandan Civil War, ultimately left many villages destitute. With so much of the population gone, young men and women became responsible for running towns and villages so that families could survive. They became tethered to households as it were, preventing them from attending school.

Although the situation has been slowly improving, general education is still in rough shape today. According to the Fourth Integrated Household Living Conditions (2013/14) survey conducted by the Rwandan government, only 25 percent of women aged 13 to 18 attended secondary school.

Just 2.5 percent made it to tertiary education.


A Vision for the Future

As the tragic Rwandan Civil War ended, President Paul Kagame took office in 2003. This man had a true vision for Rwanda.

According to a SOLIDWORKS video about the situation in 2011, “President Paul Kagame’s dream is to move Rwanda away from a painful past and from an economy based on subsistence agriculture to peace and prosperity fueled by a design and manufacturing economy.”

In order for Rwanda to transform successfully to this new knowledge-based economy, it would need to invest heavily in training its population.

In 2006, Dassault Systèmes (DS) SOLIDWORKS began to send courseware and materials to the Nyanza Technical School in Rwanda to help with this training. The goal was to set up an engineering software program which would provide the tools for students to start their own businesses and help boost the economy.


Education is a Luxury

In 2013, seven years after the implementation of the courseware program, the numbers for female enrollment at the school were still far too low. Why?

The DS SOLIDWORKS lab at Nyanza Technical School, formerly ETO Gitarama. (Image courtesy of DS SOLIDWORKS.)
The DS SOLIDWORKS lab at Nyanza Technical School, formerly ETO Gitarama. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

According to Planchard’s estimate, an education costs on average $300 per year—not including boarding, books or other expenses. Many of Rwanda’s young women come from families with missing or unemployed parents and, as implied by Kagame, existence was subsistence.

Although it would cost less than what most North Americans spend on a new smartphone, school was a luxury these women could not afford.


To WIN with Education

The employees at Dassault Systèmes could see that something needed to be done at the partner school—and this is where WIN came in.

WIN, the Dassault Systèmes Women’s Initiative, is a program designed to support women at the company in North America and to assist them in achieving personal and professional growth. It’s headed by Debbie Dean, vice president of the general counsel for Dassault Systèmes Americas.

Since the company was already associated with the Nyanza Technical School through its SOLIDWORKS software donations, WIN decided to establish a scholarship program designed for deserving young women in Rwanda who would not otherwise be able to afford a technical education.


Starting Small with Community Support


The women of Dassault Systèmes across North America quickly raised the necessary scholarship funds by appealing to the community. Fundraisers such as raffles and craft fairs featured items donated by employees. That first year, the initiative raised enough money to put three young women through all three years at the technical school.

The program continued into the next year with strong support from Dassault Systèmes SOLIDWORKS CEO Gian Paolo Bassi and matching funds from SOLIDWORKS. 2015 was the program’s third year running and it shows no signs of slowing down.


Dreaming Big: WIN’s Hopes for the Future

The first (right) and second (left) sets of three women sponsored by DS SOLIDWORKS. (Image courtesy of DS SOLIDWORKS.)
The first (right) and second (left) sets of three women sponsored by Dassault Systèmes SOLIDWORKS. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

Since that first year, three young women have graduated from Nyanza Technical School. Three are currently in progress and three more will be starting soon. The graduates and current students received refurbished laptops with SOLIDWORKS licenses as part of their scholarship package.

The hope is that the technology will give the young women a head-start in building entrepreneurship and helping citizens of Rwanda. After all, as Planchard said, “Rwandans helping Rwandans is the best way to help Rwanda.”

Dean has expressed an eventual hope to fund young women through college or university as well, but there are no concrete plans for this yet.



New Opportunities

Graduate Monique Uwambajimana became an entrepreneur after her education. (Image courtesy of DS SOLIDWORKS.)
Graduate Monique Uwambajimana became an entrepreneur after her education. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

For these young women, the opportunity for an education opened the floodgates for their dreams.

One wants to be an engineer and work in construction. Another dreams of becoming a civil engineer to build new schools and hospitals in order to help orphans and push for development in Rwanda. Others want to start up their own businesses.

Like the young Vietnamese man in Planchard’s tale, these Rwandan women want to use their education to build a successful future and to help others.


Meet Monique

Monique Uwambajimana was just one year old when the genocide in Rwanda orphaned her. A bright and motivated young woman, she became one of the first Dassault Systèmes SOLIDWORKS-sponsored students at Nyanza.

The proud entrepreneur with her wares. (Image courtesy of DS SOLIDWORKS.)
The proud entrepreneur with her wares. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

Now, at 22 years old, Monique is one of the program’s first graduates. After finishing her secondary schooling, she applied to university and was accepted. When she wrote to her “parents” (as she refers to several of the women in the WIN group) to ask for financial aid, she found that the initiative didn’t have the funds to help her.

In lieu of a university degree, Monique decided she wanted to start her own business to help her village. To assist, Dassault Systèmes director of marketing strategy and planning Janet Nicholas guided Monique in her search for the right business opportunity. Nicholas ultimately connected Monique with NURU Energy, a socially-driven enterprise which provides rechargeable LED lights as an environmentally sound, inexpensive and safe alternative to the kerosene lamps used in Rwandan homes. Nicholas and Dean sent Monique enough funds from their own pockets to fund the young woman’s initial business start-up costs.

Monique used her start-up funds to purchase a set of 100 lights, solar-powered octopus chargers and a pedal-powered charger to allow for recharging capability when the sun isn’t shining. Villagers buy the lights at an extremely low price and Monique recharges the lights for them at a fee. Overall, this cost is much lower than the cost of kerosene.

Like many other villages in Rwanda, Monique’s is completely off the grid. Infrastructure is developing in the country, but not quickly enough to bring electricity to every village in the near future.

Monique used her education to become an entrepreneur, lighting up her village with a system that will make it a greener and safer place to live—just like the story about the young man from Vietnam. It truly is impressive how a little engineering education can transform so many lives.

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