Rwanda’s natural beauty is distracting. Almost every suburb in its capital Kigali boasts a vista of rolling green hills, and in the city, new skyscrapers glisten in the sun.
It’s difficult for visitors to imagine that the country, run like an efficient corporation and often referred to as Africa’s Switzerland today, was once the scene of a mass tragedy that claimed a million lives. President Paul Kagame’s ‘Vision 2020’ is a strategy to transform Rwanda into a middle-income country, working on all its strengths. Luckily, besides natural resources, Rwanda is also blessed with a young generation with an entrepreneurial mindset.
Teta Isibo is one such youngster making a mark. When she quit her job in urban planning in the mayor’s office in Kigali to become a businesswoman, she knew her plan was in line with that of her country’s.
“Rwanda has instilled in us confidence as youth, and that’s safety. I don’t know if I would have been able in another country to say well I didn’t study fashion and I didn’t study business, but I want to do a fashion business and I’m going to,” says Isibo.
Five years on, the 28-year-old is a self-taught designer and founder of Inzuki Designs, a local company started in 2010 specializing in jewelry, accessories and home décor with a Rwandan touch.
“We’re trying to create a contemporary African lifestyle brand that portrays the new Rwanda, the new Africa, that shows a different side of Rwanda, a different side to Africa. It’s not just sad stories, it’s not just our past, but it’s also the hope that we have and this whole new energy we have in Rwanda and Africa as a whole.”
The bright colors of her statement jewelry pieces in her Kigali store are a departure from the customary black-and-white color scheme of Kinyarwanda culture. Inzuki Designs uses traditional local materials such as cow horn, beads, palm leaves and sisal, a fiber made of grass that typically grows in East Africa’s Great Lakes region.
Starting with a capital of $4,000, she believes she is on the right track.
“We are not yet where we want to be in terms of success. Our sales volume has increased by over 75%.”
Inzuki is named after the Kinyarwanda word for bees, and Isibo likens her clients to bees, bold women who aren’t afraid of color. And bringing her designs to life are women’s cooperatives, such as that of Bernadette Bankundiye’s, who started in her home backyard in the Kigali neighborhood of Kagugu.
“My friends saw me working and were inspired to join me. As time went by, we started working together, sharing ideas, meeting to discuss our plans and artwork,” says Bankundiye.
By 2009, Bankundiye and the women in her neighborhood formed a cooperative to supply Inzuki Designs. While it is still too expensive to patent her products in Rwanda, Isibo has worked hard to ensure the loyalty of the cooperatives she works with so that her designs are not replicated and that the quality surpasses that of the many markets in the city.
The exchange with Inzuki Designs is more than just supply and demand. For many of the women who are part of these cooperatives, it’s a means of rebuilding their lives post the genocide.
“Through Inzuki, we have been able to move on with our lives. Our children have been able to go to school, we all have benefitted from medical insurance, improved our lifestyle, built our own homes. We are happy and feel Teta stands out as a role model for all young girls and women,” says Bankundiye.
As determined as these women are to move on, the events of 1994 are unforgettable. Born in Kenya, Isibo was raised in Uganda where her family lived as refugees after the first attacks against the Tutsis in 1959.
“We were young but we could understand what was going on. It was a very sad time for everyone. You’d switch on the TV and you’d see bodies floating into Lake Victoria in Uganda. We were old enough for my parents to explain to us that these were Tutsis being killed,” says Isibo.
Her late father was a translator and interpreter who spoke 10 languages. Both her parents have worked for the United Nations in Tanzania; her mother still does.
Returning as a young woman educated in the UK and fluent in English has given Isibo an edge. In 2008, English replaced French as the official medium of education and business, and refugees returning from Anglophone countries would benefit the most from the ‘Vision 2020’ program.
The government has also placed great emphasis on gender equality and today Rwanda’s parliament boasts the highest number of women anywhere in the world. While women played a remarkable role in the reconciliation process, those gains have not quite reached the private sector. Still, Isibo believes Rwanda’s gender policies have given her a platform to build her career.
“Being a woman in business here is not like it would be in another country. You don’t think ‘I can never make it, I don’t have a chance’. They really push to promote you.”
When Isibo won a national entrepreneurship competition that provided the funds to kick-start her business, her male competitors in the ICT and agriculture sectors assured her that her strategy to turn fashion and design in Rwanda into a viable industry was a winning one.
Isibo is determined to capitalize on the country’s vision of becoming a regional technology hub. She is set to launch an online store for her growing international clientele.
“All my marketing is [through] social media. I’ve never paid for marketing. I just do great photoshoots in which the models are my friends. I think that’s the great thing about having a network because we all help each other. I know if I’m stuck with something, I can call upon one of my friends and get some pro bono advice and I know that I can do the same for them.”
The country is determined to overcome its past and it is the young men and women like Isibo who will reap the benefits of a reconciled Rwanda in 2020 and beyond.