Ituze Ndutiye Colombe epitomizes everything Rwanda is today: determined, enterprising and forward-looking.
On weekdays, she works long hours as an ICT trainer in one of Kigali’s top technology firms. By evening, she switches careers, driving her Toyota RAV4 to a small shop run by the Rwanda Nziza craft cooperative in the Kiyovu neighborhood of Kigali where she retails her fashion label INCO Icyusa.
On weekends, she is with her tailors, sketching, sewing and selling. Once she has struck off all the tasks on her to-do list, finally, after dark, she gets to be the 25-year-old she is, listening to Avril Lavigne or partying hard with friends in Kigali’s karaoke pubs.
An artist, fashion designer, technologist and entrepreneur, Colombe says that as a child – ever since she could hold a crayon – she loved to sketch.
“From the beginning, I wanted to draw. In school, I was also interested in physics and technology. I was looking for something that would combine the two,” says Colombe, who now uses multimedia to design her website and clothes.
Colombe launched her label with the meager money she had saved from her day job. She could have asked her mother, a lawyer and her greatest support, for more, but didn’t.
“She would have offered it to me, but I wanted to do this on my own,” says Colombe.
Her father, also a lawyer, had passed away when she was seven. At the age of 12, when Colombe was still considering subjects for secondary school, she was introduced to a Belgian designer who was visiting Rwanda. Colombe was awestruck by her drawings – they were patterns she had never seen. It awakened her sartorial sensibilities, and she tried to learn whatever she could.
“At that point, there were no schools for fashion and design in Rwanda – there still aren’t. And the schools that had these courses were abroad and expensive,” says Colombe.
So, she decided to enrol for her second favorite subject: information technology. As a student, she also made money as a designer. After her bachelor’s degree in December, Colombe signed up with Rwanda Nziza to display and retail her label, consisting of apparel and accessories. She sources her fabric, mostly cotton, from Nairobi. Her designs are Africa-inspired but, as she asserts, not limited to Africa. When we meet her, she is wearing a short funky skirt, featuring African patterns on denim, mixing traditional with contemporary cool.
Next step: she wants to make enough money to open her own store in Kigali. “There is great demand, mostly through custom orders, for good clothing. I want to create simple and beautiful things for people,” says Colombe. She is also striving to promote African heritage and generate job opportunities for women. In 2009, Colombe was the youngest designer at the first Rwanda Fashion Festival. She has recently returned from Washington DC, after a prestigious six-week fellowship with the Young African Leaders Initiative Network.
“I am happy to place Rwanda on the fashion map in my own way,” says Colombe. For a country torn by war in the past, she is one of many entrepreneurs continuing to change its image.