Janvier Pierre Munezero’s life has been an arduous struggle to escape from poverty ever since he was born in 1982 in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. He says growing up in Goma, at a time when the only business was war and death, has not only deepened his sense to value life, but also use the opportunity life offers to better one’s living standard.
“Even as a child, I was conditioned that the only way to survive was to involve yourself in activities like illegal mining, being a war soldier, poaching and destruction of natural resources. When you’re living in a war zone, you must live like a soldier and always make sure you survive to fight for your life another day,” Munezero says.
But now Goma has changed; it’s an oasis of peace and tranquillity in DRC, a country that’s still reeling under war and conflict because of the scramble for its natural resources.
Munezero is now part of a cooperative known as Northern Kivu Sellers Association (ASSAVENOKI), from where they have turned their skills into making handcrafts they sell to tourists who visit Goma town and its environs.
Virunga Community Program is at the forefront of marketing handcraft products made by ASSAVENOKI in Goma
Recently the cooperative, which comprises over a dozen members, partnered with Virunga Community Programmes, a tourism, conservation and social enterprise, to market their products to both local and international tourists.
“We realised that we can no longer sustain our livelihoods just by depending on the spoils of war. We came together and decided to use our talents and skills to get sustainable income to support ourselves and our families. Goma is now peaceful and tourists come in droves to see and marvel at its nature, and it’s pertinent that we provide them with attractive souvenirs,” says Munezero.
Goma is part of the Virunga massif that spreads to Rwanda and Uganda and the main tourist attractions include trekking the mountain gorillas, bird watching, climbing the active Nyiragongo volcano and sightseeing at the Biega Mountains, among others.
“Most of the people in Goma have now adopted legal means to sustain their livelihoods, as opposed to the past years when the area was tainted by wars and conflicts. The new Goma is an attractive bait to tourists and this has helped this area to register exponential development. We are proud that we are now part of this development,” says Munezero.
He says that most of their time is now spent on making the handicrafts, including jewelleries, ornaments and traditional baskets, among many others that tourists who come to Goma buy.
“We realised that we had to change with times. Instead of spending our lives in the forests, we did realise we can use our skills and passions to engage in productive activities to better our lives. And now we are seeing positive results and profiting from our labour,” he adds.
But he is quick to add that their nascent cooperative is still faced with a number of challenges, and the most conspicuous one is marketing their products.
Says Munezero: “We want to reach as many customers as possible. However, our effort is impeded by the fact that we have not spread our wings beyond Goma, and not all tourists who come here purchase our products, let alone know of our existence.”
He reveals that it’s because of this that they have now partnered with Virunga Community Programmes, which works together with Red Rocks Cultural Centre in Rwanda and Uganda, as well as Amani Safaris in DR Congo to help them aggressively market their products.
“We are part of wider cultural tourism activities around the Virunga massif and we realise that for us to reach a wider market, we must engage in joint partnership with other organisations. That’s how we are eventually going to succeed in our endeavours,” Munezero says.
He adds that the founding of the cooperative has helped them to steer from illegal activities like poaching and destruction of forests that are still rampant in Goma area in particular and the country in general.
“Goma is blessed with breathtaking natural scenery and amazing wildlife and plants that must be conserved. It’s set amidst a backdrop of amazing natural phenomena that’s a magnet to tourism, and now that peace has finally prevailed in this part of the country, tourist activities have also picked up and this portends well for the future economy of the area,” says Munezero.
Francis Ndagijimana, special programme coordinator at the Virunga Community Programmes, says that Goma is now becoming a “tourism town” and they are going to make concerted efforts to make sure the cooperative aggressively markets its products.