Reading, Dominique Alonga believes, has not always been encouraged or valued in her home country Rwanda. “Students who wanted to read were considered nerdy and anti-social. Even the teachers often viewed it as a distraction.” But it was different in her own home, where her mother encouraged reading and time was set aside to read every day.
The attitude toward reading in Rwanda wasn’t the only problem; even for those who wanted to read, books and libraries were in short supply. There is still only one fully equipped public library in the nation. Dominique decided she needed to change all of that.
Graduating in 2014 from Jain University in Bangalore, India, with a bachelor’s degree in media studies, Dominque returned to Kigali and began working with Never Again Rwanda in the communications department. In this position, she had frequent interaction with tourists and expats and felt that Rwandans were looked down upon. “This made me angry, but it was also the beginning of something. I could not change the past in regard to my culture, but I could work on the current problems. I wanted to see young people attain their potential, become smarter and more informed.”
It was about this time that her ideas really began to take shape; she knew that she wanted to spread literacy and make high-quality books available to everyone. In 2014, she entered a competition for social entrepreneurs working to improve the lives of children. When she found out in August of 2015 that she was on the shortlist for a monetary award from non-profit Reach for Change, she quit her job and officially began the process to register her NGO, Imagine We Rwanda. A few months later, she decided to register it as a social enterprise to encourage herself and her team to find creative ways of becoming sustainable.
Dominique used her modest savings to rent office space and had a team of three volunteers, but they had no books and no money. “What we had was a lot of energy. I didn’t know it would be such a crazy journey.”
Having attended three years of high school in the United States, Dominique decided to reach out to her alma mater. The school was happy to help their former student and donated 3000 books. Dominique then located another organization to pay the cost of shipping the books to her. The books were initially stored at her grandfather’s house, but soon found their way to local schools and organizations, many of which were able to set up libraries for the first time.
When they ultimately received the Reach for Change grant, Dominique says, “It put us on the national map, and soon we were very focused on how many partnerships we could get.” And while they were quite successful at getting them, there was a downside. “Having partnerships can affect your vision in both positive and negative ways. And you can’t always depend on them – sometimes they would change their minds as to whether or not they were partnering with us. It created a lot of instability.”
So in early 2016, Imagine We Rwanda decided they needed a new plan. “We sat down as a team and concluded that we couldn’t keep going the way we were. Depending solely on partnerships and grants for finances created a lot of frustration, and we couldn’t plan ahead with any certainty. We decided that in order for us to survive and have independence we would create our own publishing house. This would allow us to share the stories we were hearing from children and make some money to survive as an organization without being dependent on anyone else.”
Currently, the publishing house has put out two books with several others in the works. They have successfully sold close to 1800 books in Rwanda and abroad. They also hold trainings in writing and publishing, and, through a partnership with the Australian organization Ducere, have produced pocket-sized books written by children in their community. They plan to use the money they make selling their books to support their goal of promoting literacy and placing books where they are needed. Not only are they continuing to provide books to schools, they are also establishing libraries in five area hospitals, including their first hospital outside of Kigali. Their goal is to eventually go nationwide so that all schools in the country will have high-quality books and fully-functioning libraries.
Dominique’s work has not gone unnoticed. In 2015, she and her team were recognized by Jeannette Kagame, the First Lady of Rwanda, and the following year by Barack Obama’s Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI – Mandela Washington Fellowship). She also earned awards from UKAID’s iAccelerator, the Imbuto Foundation (the First Lady of Rwanda’s organization), UNFPA, and the World Bank Blog for Development, among others.
Dominique is quick to recognize her co-workers in these accomplishments. “My team is vibrant, creative, and always innovative. It means a lot that they have been with me from the beginning, even when I could not pay them a salary. Growing with people who are dedicated and passionate about the mission is very rewarding.” She strongly believes that hers is the best team in Kigali; they have been recognized several times by different organizations because of their unity, creativity, passion and commitment.
At times, Dominique says, she has faced obstacles. “Many challenges were the result of my age. I was just 22 when I started Imagine We, and people were sometimes put-off by that. Also, because of my name, people sometimes assumed I was a man until they met or spoke to me. Unfortunately, I think this did prevent a few partnerships from happening.”
Still, Dominique is unafraid to take risks, and in fact, declares that they have little choice but to do so. “Risk-taking is big, and every day is a new day at Imagine We Rwanda. What we’re doing hasn’t been done before, so it’s not as if we can Google the answers! This started as a project of passion, and we thought it would last about three months. It’s now been over two years and we’re still going strong.”
She has, most recently, partnered with a local coffee shop to open a branch at their library. She is excited about the new journey ahead: Rwanda’s first comic book for teens, an Imagine We coffee shop, and a mentorship program.
In June 2018, Dominque e-launched the first Rwandan Fairytale, entitled Enchanted Lands of A Thousand Hills – where everything is possible and magical. The book was inspired by Ysolde Shimwe, founder of Uzuri K&Y a great Rwandan role model for young people in Rwanda and Africa. Her team is certain that this book will inspire Africa’s little girls to dream and engage their imagination.
The story has only begun for this young social entrepreneur.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Prepare well and know the business you want to break into.
MONEY ISN’T EVERYTHING
It’s great to have a well-thought-out budget, but if you are passionate about what you’re doing you can start with $1.
True character comes out when things
are the hardest. Don’t give up.