Why Gakinjiro carpenters are reluctant to innovate
The Coopérative de Menuiserie Moderne de Kigali (Comemoki), according to its members, makes Kigali’s best wooden house furniture from the most expensive libuyu wood, from impenetrable forest of DR Congo.
In many Kigali sitting rooms, one is likely to find their items, because they have been in the business for more than two decades. Located in Gakinjiro, Nyarugenge District, among other cooperatives in the same business, what is lacking in Comemoki’s workshop is originality and variety. Most of their chairs, tables and cupboards look the same, leaving customers with little choice.
“Our members don’t think beyond what they see – when one person comes up with a design, the others will copy it”, agrees Denys Nsabimana, the president of the cooperative.
According to Nsabimana, many of the cooperative’s 90 members learned carpentry on the job, which is why they are more focused on the technical rather than the design side. In addition, he says, there is always the risk that a new model will not get the favor of clients.
“We have to be careful with what we make; a model that requires more wood will be more expensive, and few people will be interested in it,” says Silas Habimfura, 52, who has been in the cooperative for twelve years.
At prices between Frw 350,000 and Frw 500,000 for a cupboard, experimenting with new models might indeed be a risky, and costly business. “Last three years, I tried a new style to make a difference, but it took two years to get sold,” says one member of the cooperative. “Since then, I decided I won’t ever go beyond what my colleagues are doing”.
Therefore, the carpenters play it safe and only do something new when a customer orders it. “At that time, we provide what he wants, but we won’t work on that model again, even though it might be better than what we are actually working on”, says the cooperative representative.
And why would they anyway? Business is rather good, the members say, since they don’t have strong competitors except for the few existing furniture companies or the major supermarkets, which however use different raw materials.
However, officials at the Rwanda Cooperative Authority (RCA) point out such an attitude towards the market is exactly one of the main weakness of many cooperatives in the country, and they might benefit from market research. “We are interested in helping cooperatives to organize themselves, to build their capacity, but we only support those who come to us and express their interest”, says Jean Damascène Mugemana in charge of capacity building in RCA.
In addition, he says, cooperatives should not just rely on RCA’s support, but also take initiative and for example go on a study trip to learn new techniques from colleagues in other areas. Who knows, they might even come across a new design that actually sells.