Rwanda Survivors Village Branding

The Color of Hope

Art and design projects nurture hope and healing in Rwandan genocide survivors.

A little color can be a very powerful thing. 

Alan Jacobson has seen its magic in a tiny village in western Rwanda, where since 2005 he has been working with survivors of the country’s 1994 genocide. When he first arrived in the village near Gisenyi, Rwanda, Jacobson was part of a team creating a genocide memorial. In the years since, he’s led a series of projects that have helped transform the village from a place of despair to one of hope and healing. 

One of Jacobson’s first initiatives was to help the villagers paint their mud-brick homes in bold colors and simple, textile-inspired patterns—a kind of collective identity project that cultivated civic pride and community building. He has also led art classes for village children and adults, while helping to improve living conditions and promote the importance of education. 

Lack of income is a major barrier for the villagers, so Jacobson has helped them explore ways to create jobs in the community. In 2008, the Rugerero Sunflower Oil Cooperative was established to produce and sell cooking oil made from sunflowers grown locally.  

“It’s a rare income-producing activity, but more than that, it has helped build the community and provides villagers with a purpose and a place to gather,” says Jacobson. 

Most cooking oil products in Rwanda are imported from Uganda and Republic of the Congo, but Rwandans would prefer to support local products if they are available, he explains. To help promote the cooperative’s purpose and products, Jacobson’s nonprofit ex;it Foundation helped organize two projects that bring even more color, light, and hope to the village.  

Building as billboard

To communicate the energy inside the cooperative building and visually broadcast its purpose, the group envisioned painting a colorful sunflower mural on its nondescript façade. 

Jacobson sketched a rough concept and the cooperative enlisted help from a local young women’s group to paint the mural. The 10 women in this group, victims of violence during the genocide, gather weekly to learn new skills and work toward healing and creating a new future. Although they had never done this kind of work before, they agreed to partner with the cooperative and, with some help charting the mural on the building, completed the painting in two weeks. 

The total cost of the project was one paper napkin (free), $200 for paint and brushes (supplied by the ex;it Foundation), and a donation to the women’s group for sewing supplies (made by an anonymous donor). 

Branding the future

In the second project, graphic design students from Drexel University’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design developed brand identity and marketing materials for the cooperative. The project was made possible by a grant from Sappi Fine Paper North America’s Ideas that Matter program.

“An equally important objective was to allow the students to fully engage in a philanthropic endeavor and use their design skills for a humanitarian effort,” says Jody Graff, the school’s program director for graphic design. 

A group of seven Drexel students worked on the project for nine months. The initial stages of the project focused on immersing students in the Rwandan culture and the context of the village, says Graff.  Jacobson provided an overview of the village, its experiences with the mass killings of Rwandans in 1994, and his connection with the community. The students also researched the region and culture and spent time discussing the delicate nature of the project and the context in which their work was to be done.

After their design concepts were developed, the students’ work was presented to the villagers, who chose from three options. The chosen concept was built around a logo consisting of concentric circles that represent the unity and solidarity of the village community. The shape references sunflowers, the sun, and optimism for the future. The color palette reflects the Rwandan flag, sunflowers, earth, sun, and sky. Used in repetition, the mark is evocative of the textile patterns seen in Rwanda, and also signifies the growth of the collective. 

The logo was applied to bottle tags, business cards, banners, signage, and tablecloths for the market tables and roadside stands that are the cooperative’s retail outlets. Students also produced colorful posters that were distributed to everyone in the village and given to first-time oil buyers. 

“The villagers really treasure these posters, because art and graphics are rare to nonexistent in their homes,” notes Jacobson. The reverse side of the posters left the Cooperative Sunflower Oil brand in outline form for children to color.  

The villagers’ pride in their cooperative has risen considerably thanks to the professional quality and vibrancy of the materials, says Jacobson. And the students learned a valuable lesson about how their design lives and functions in real-world situations, adds Graf. On both sides of the globe, a little color nurtured a lot of hope, and the pride that comes from creating something together. 

--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 29, 2010

Jury comments

“This entry had the most profound emotional response for me. The simple act of painting the building façade with the sunflower pattern instantly identified the building in a non-verbal way, enhancing and beautifying its surroundings and supporting the brand—everything a successful environmental graphics program should do!” 

“The brand identity/logo is beautiful, joyous, and well executed. This program was Best of Show for me.”


Location:  Gisenyi, Rwanda

Client:  Rugerero Sunflower Oil Cooperative

Design:  ex;it Foundation/Alan Jacobson

Mural Painting:  Rugerero Womens Support Group, Meghan Morris (mural painting facilitation), Rukundo Ephrem (translator) 

Photos:  Eric Reynolds



Location:  Gisenyi, Rwanda

Client:  Rugerero Sunflower Oil Cooperative

Design:  Graphic Design students from Drexel University’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design, ex;it Foundation

Instructor:  Jody Graff

Design Team:  Alan Jacobson, Jody Graff, Kevin Dietrich, Nicole Doenges, Tristine Harding, Kathleen Madamba, Yesenia Perez-Cruz, Maggie Ruder, Anne Trencher

Fabrication:  Garrison Printing Company (bottle tags, business cards, posters), Color Reflections (ground covers, table covers, signage)

Photos:  Alan Jacobson


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