We are at Camp Kigali, the venue of the 2016 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Rwanda in May, and Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), has just walked past the media center in a suit sporting a bright bowtie – he probably has the nattiest collection of bowties on the continent.
There are other men around him and in the background, wearing grey suits, coffee stains and lazy expressions. And Matthew Rugamba swaggers in, in a peacock blue suit and vest, making a sartorial statement louder than all their spiffy PowerPoint presentations.
The 26-year-old founder and creative director of House of Tayo is not at WEF to peddle his latest collection of Afrochic bowties and accessories that are currently wowing Rwanda. He’s here as part of a high-caliber panel, including former AfDB chief Donald Kaberuka, speaking about youth entrepreneurship and Africa Rising.
“Throughout the panel discussion, I had to keep pinching myself,” says Rugamba.
“There was a time when people would laugh at me for saying I wanted to make bowties in Rwanda, and here I was on stage with some incredible people.”
Born in England to Rwandan and Ugandan parents, Rugamba lived and studied in Kenya, Swaziland and the United States (US), where he acquired a degree in international relations. In his final year, he walked up to his mentor and advisor and announced he wanted to pursue a career in fashion design.
“It’s funny how much my international relations background has impacted what I am doing now. My advisor said ‘do what you want to do’, and told me that through fashion and design, I would probably have a greater impact in the field of international relations than some of my peers who were going to grad school or doing a PhD,” says Rugamba.
Part of the reason for his fortitude was he wanted to be his own boss. After high school, when he was 17, his parents persuaded him to take up a summer job in the United Kingdom (UK). That’s when he sold toys and painting sets to kids at Hamleys and Harrods in London.
“I earned only commissions. I told myself I would never do a job like that in my life. It almost controlled you. Sometimes, going to work was more expensive than staying at home,” says Rugamba, also a diehard Manchester United fan, who confesses to taking time off work even now to watch a good match.
When the war was raging in Uganda, there were no opportunities for young people so Rugamba’s father had moved to the UK, juggling three jobs at the age of 23. His mother, Rosette Chantal-Rugamba, herself a trailblazer credited with changing the tourism landscape in a post-genocide Rwanda in the 2000s, is an entrepreneur in the conference tourism industry; she runs Songa Africa. She too had started her career at Harrods in the UK, when she first joined her husband in the eighties.
After college, Rugamba applied for a summer job in his mother’s company and worked on one of her tourism projects, using the $300 he earned to launch his bowtie brand.
“My parents said I had to prove myself. So I sold some sample bowties and scarves to two of my aunts and they loved it; they said whatever support I needed, they would help.”
Thereafter, Rugamba returned to the US to complete his degree. That’s where he delved into the mind of the customer.
“In Washington DC, when you step into the metro, everyone is wearing standard red and blue ties. And here I was, wearing these loud bowties… When I said I was from Rwanda, there would always be immediate pity or if it wasn’t pity, it was condescending praise, such as ‘oh my God, your English is so good’. I hated the pity and thought ‘what can I do to change perceptions’, and saw power in bowties… All the soft power I learned in class was now coming to the fore.”
Rugamba retuned to Rwanda in 2013 and now crafts his products in bold African colors and vibrant patterns at a workshop in Kigali, working with women’s cooperatives to make men’s accessories.
“The women are so dedicated and accommodating. I bought them an industrial sewing machine to show them that I wasn’t there to just make money, but also wanted a long-term working relationship with them,” says Rugamba.
His design aesthetic is local, but he is aiming for an international reach. There are many things he would like to first change in the local industry though.
“I have started to push for changes in the fashion industry as a whole. There is a huge gap for skills, raw materials and for my business to thrive, I need the industry to grow as a whole. I am also keen on 3D printing. This is also why I am here at WEF, to network,” says Rugamba, gesturing to the sprawling venue.
When you are successful, you attract others like you. And in Rwanda’s close-knit business circles, you make more friends than foes.
Ephraim Rwamwenge, the 23-year-old CEO of Rwa Business Group, also a WEF delegate, joins Rugamba with a hug and handshake for an impromptu photoshoot. The two had met professionally and then became mates. This is another entrepreneur worth his salt – or sugar. Also a regular emcee at high-profile corporate events and dinners, Rwamwenge had emceed the youth event at this edition of WEF, hosted by Rwanda’s First Lady Jeannette Kagame on day one of the business meet.
“I keep telling Matthew he should give me suits so when I go up and emcee, I can say I am wearing House of Tayo. Matthew is famous, his brand is so visual, unlike the rest of us, who sell sugar,” laughs Rwamwenge.
Born and raised in Botswana and of Ugandan-Rwandan parentage, Rwamwenge started his business at the age of 19. He is also a WEF Global Shaper.
He had returned to Rwanda in June 2012 with $1,000 borrowed from a family friend and business mentor.
“I had to pitch to him for support to raise capital. My parents were both teachers, and we were middle class. Then my dad became a full-time pastor and did missionary work. We had a decent childhood but not one of privilege. I had to work hard for everything I wanted,” says Rwamwenge.
In high school, if he wanted to buy PlayStations, he would make money selling lyrics.
“Back then, the girls and boys in school would listen to songs and write the lyrics. One of my uncles had an internet café, so I would google the songs, print the lyrics and sell them. A page would sell at 50 cents. Most songs would be two pages, and I would make sure the font was big, so I would make more money.”
As an entrepreneur, Rwamwenge now packages, distributes and sells sugar from Kigali to Rwanda’s rural areas. Success has been sweet.
“People talk of low margins in commodities but there is a serious return on capital invested, especially if you can work on a good turnover. So we started the export of coffee. So to the people who were supplying us with sugar, we said you give us sugar, we will give you coffee, and offset the balances.”
Rwamwenge’s company turnover last year was about $1.3 million, and with his investors and partners, he is hoping to multiply and expand his businesses. Up next is a range of premium coffee.
Later that night – the last day of WEF – we meet Rugamba and Rwamwenge again, at Innovation Village, the hip art café and culture hub on the top floor of Kigali’s public library. Everything their generation loves is here: art, coffee, business – and bowties.