It was a gamble that paid off, 8,500 kilometers away from their comfort zone.
Two 21-year-old fashion students, Inés Mille and Marc Collines, left the hallowed hallways of fashion in Barcelona and with just $9,000 in their pockets, traveled all the way to East Africa to set up shop in little-known Kigali in Rwanda, which at the time was building itself – a fully-fledged fashion industry was not yet on its radar.
“Rwanda. It’s where our heart is. It’s where the soul of this company is. It’s where we were born and where everything happened,” says Mille.
Eight years on, Mille Collines, the brand she built with Collines from Kigali, is a million-dollar fashion line that can spotted on the runways of Lagos and Cape Town. Now 32, Mille looks back at the memory with a smile.
“The obliviousness, the ignorance. We were mad and we were so young and we were so crazy. So we said we can do this.”
Mille sits in her home in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town, among inspiring pictures of fashion models on runways, African sculptures from her travels and intricate bookshelves. Naturally, it is the epitome of one conscious of subtle African style – much like her work.
Her story goes back to a time when she was young and fresh in fashion school in Barcelona. It was 2005 and Mille was traveling in Rwanda with her mother’s NGO looking for outreach programs to sponsor. Here, she met a seamstress named Antoinette, who trained women and kids to sew.
“She said ‘you are a fashion designer. You have no idea of the handcraft skills we have here, if only you can put your brain in design and their handcraft skills together, it would be incredible’,” says Mille.
The idea hit home. A year later, and in her final year of design, Mille thought it would make the perfect thesis. She decided to travel to Kigali and pursue Antoinette’s suggestion. Along with her came Collines, who at the time was at another school and also looking for a project.
“The funny story is when I went [to Kigali], there was huge resistance from my tutors and the board of teachers at my college. They said ‘there was absolutely no ways you are going to Africa to do a collection where there is no infrastructure. How are you going to make garments in Africa, they don’t even dress in clothes’… I was at a progressive design school in Barcelona. They were afraid that just because I went there and worked with poor people, I would come back with a sh***y collection. That was the spark,” says Mille.
A 50% mark prompted Mille to move to the heart of Africa. They took with them $9,000 in savings and set up shop in Kigali where they developed their first collection, in partnership with Antoinette. At the time, Mille recalls there was no infrastructure for fashion in Rwanda whatsoever. They had to start from the ground up looking for people to work with.
“Many people thought, ‘where are they going? Are they going to be able to do anything in Kigali? Is there even fashion there?'”
One of her prized possessions from this time lies on the stone table in front of her – their first designer diary. Kigali springs to life and Mille’s eyes light up as she fingers the pages recalling drawing African masks and collecting slivers of material from the markets.
“There were informal collectives of women around the country, which were amazing and very well organized, they’d been doing handcraftsmanship for a long time… Initially, we tried to think everything is going to be coming from Rwanda. If it was textiles, it was found in the markets with a few wholesalers here and there. Obviously, it was challenging.
“I remember some women were doing baskets and I said ‘do just flat disks’. They said what for? I said we’re going to do necklaces. They went crazy over the idea. They then started doing their own earrings and selling them in the market. They were everywhere from corporate to home. It was the thing to have in Rwanda,” says Mille.
Their ticket to success was blending the creativity, strength and culture of the African spirit with ever-evolving global trends.
“There was a lot of intrigue. Nobody was doing this in Rwanda. No other brand existed that had taken handcrafted skills, redone it and made a contemporary product. We were some of the first ones to do it. It sparked a number of other brands to follow,” says Mille.
The team moved in to Kenya, casting their net in Nairobi. The demand was high and four more stores followed. It wasn’t always easy – a store on the coast of Kenya and a store in South Africa failed because they didn’t catch the right market.
“We were opening the door to the African clothing market… We thought if we sell abroad with all our challenges we already have, in terms of logistics, in terms of quality, we needed to align our market. We are producing in Africa; it makes sense to sell in Africa and make this product African.”
Along with the birth of Mille Collines grew the fully-fledged fashion atelier, which is owned and operated by the Kigali team that helped build Mille Collines.
“It was the hardest moment in the company. We needed to hand over the workshop to the team in Rwanda. They were prepared. We needed to transfer it and move away from production and focus on distribution and design. Otherwise we couldn’t grow further. It took one-and-a-half years. We sold it to the Kigali team for $1. The employees all have a stake. Rwanda is not in our core business, it’s became an actual supplier.”
Now their journey has taken them to Cape Town and the house we sit in. Their team is here to begin the next step of their journey.
Mille wants to see their clothes hang in major retail stores across the continent and hopefully take an even larger chunk of Africa’s dynamic fashion industry.
“I was the first one to land in Cape Town in 2015. We had to start from ground zero. We had participated in fashion weeks, so people kind of knew us. Our main market it still Kenya. But we’ve been building relationships with suppliers in Cape Town.”
As the company expands, Mille has shifted to purchasing textiles because it’s cheaper. They are also looking to the likes of Mauritius and Madagascar for textiles once their orders get larger.
“You need to find who is better for what. When we left Rwanda, that’s what happened, we became more pan-African. We only produce in Africa.”
The company has even expanded in ways they didn’t expect. Without owning a store or being on the shelves of retail outlets, Mille says South Africa is their second largest customer. This is because of online sales and a strong presence on Instagram.
“Instagram is the strongest source for us. We make sales on it. I think it’s because it’s a visual platform. Instagram is my baby. It’s difficult to delegate. How can I explain to someone that an image is not Mille Collines? It’s very tangible, either you feel it or you don’t. We go a lot with how people react when we put images up.”
The brand’s attention to detail and passion for telling beautiful stories continues.
Mille’s clothes have been worn, she says, by the likes of Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, Hollywood actress Lupita Nyong’o and journalist Mélanie Gouby.
It’s a brand for the African woman.
“She is a mother, an entrepreneur, an individual. She is alive with bursts of color and print and grounded in muted tones of Africa’s landscape.
“In a world where differences are increasingly emphasized and where people are divided and separated, it seemed fitting to celebrate the rich beauty that comes from combining many different influences. We wanted to celebrate the fact that, despite parochial thinking in some quarters, the world is becoming more of a mélange every day,” says Mille.
“I never dreamed I’d open a business in Africa. Not a business in fashion, never. My father was a businessman and my mother was passionate about Africa. I said I was going to be a vet. I loved the fact that [fashion] is a business and art. It’s a space where it meets in the middle. It’s very commercial and it’s very challenging and very interesting.”
For Mille, Africa is the muse that keeps on giving.
Why Age Gives West African Women More Autonomy And Power
Several studies, covering about 58 countries across the world, found that as women get older they are more able to make decisions independently of men. But scholars have struggled to pin down explanations for this age dividend – why are women given more independence the older they get? We wanted to know what the reasons may be.
In a recent study, we looked at women’s autonomy across age in Nigeria, Togo, Ghana and Benin. These four West African countries are home to ethnic groups that practice “voodoo”, a religion that spread with the expansion of the Dahomey kingdom in the 17th century.
In these countries women are not equal to men. They sometimes won’t be able to make decisions about their own health – like negotiating safe sex – or on how household incomes could be used.
In our sample of 21,000 women aged 15 to 49, we found that autonomy in household decision-making increases with age. This was especially true for women who belonged to the four “voodoo-ethnicities”: Fon, Ewe, Adja and Yoruba. We also found that women had even more power if they are menopaused.
Our findings suggest that both age and magico-religious beliefs have a huge role to play in a woman’s independence. Menopaused women from “voodoo-ethnicities” are much more independent to make decisions on how they spend their own earnings, care for their own health, visit family or relatives and what major household purchases need to be made.
These insights are important for female empowerment strategies. To be effective, policies must identify potential agents of change who can, for instance, influence decisions that improve children’s schooling and nutrition or abolish female genital cutting. Despite their apparent agency, elderly women in West Africa have largely been overlooked.
Voodoo and menopause
So, why do women gain more independence the older they get, and especially if they are of voodoo-ethnicities and menopaused?
We analysed data on 21,000 women and their ability to make various decisions. We found that women’s autonomy was related to menstrual bleeding, particularly for voodoo-ethnicities. This was further explored in Benin, the birth place of Voodoo, where we conducted interviews with voodoo priests and menopaused women.
As one woman said:
[Women in menopause] are equipped with supernatural powers. Only she can talk to the ancestors and request their help, assistance and protection. And they respond to her worship and requests, not everyone can do that.
In the interviews we gathered that voodoo adherents worship collective deities (related to the sea, the earth, or thunder) and family deities: ancestors that turn into spirits after death.
The interactions with the family deities are led by a menopaused woman, referred to as the “Tassinon”. Only she can transmit the family members’ prayers and requests to the ancestors and consult the oracle to see if the spirits have accepted the offering and sacrifices.
These alleged powers, in their turn, increase the bargaining power of elderly women in their communities and households.
In situations where the supernatural power of menopaused women has faded, the cultural norm derived from it – increased awe for elderly women – persists.
Our analysis shows that the “Tassinon effect” is sizeable. We created an autonomy index – which looked at a combination of different situations where decisions had to be made and who made them – to measure this and found that it increased their ability to make decisions by about 10%.
As one woman said:
My opinion matters now in all important decisions or issues in the family and in my community. It was not the case before my designation as tassinon. I could not even attend or talk in certain audiences.
Our research provides support for the argument put forward in the African feminist literature, that seniority trumps gender in an African context.
It also adds to the evidence that voodoo continues to play a role in West-Africa. Adherence to voodoo has been proven to affect the governance of natural resources. For instance fishermen who adhere to voodoo are more likely to respect rules related to prohibited fishing gear. It also affects the uptake of preventive health care; for instance because mothers who adhere to voodoo will rely on traditional healers, they may not immunise their children. Now we know that voodoo also affects the level of independence women have in some communities.
The way ahead
A better understanding of cultural attitudes towards elderly African women will become more important for policymakers in the future. As fertility declines and life expectancy increases, elderly women will increase in numbers, both in absolute and relative terms. They could play an important role as agents of change in supporting both child care and female empowerment projects.
For instance in Benin the respect for elderly women is already relied upon in interventions targeting children’s health and nutrition, and in the abolishment of female genital cutting. This could be reinforced and extended to other sectors and to other countries.
–Marijke Verpoorten; Associate Professor, University of Antwerp
-Sahawal Alidou; PhD candidate and teaching assistant, University of Antwerp
Kenyan Hospital Opens Human Milk Bank – A Rarity In Sub-Saharan Africa
Kenya’s first human milk bank has opened at Pumwani Maternity Hospital. Moina Spooner, from The Conversation Africa, spoke to the team spearheading APHRC’s research efforts in the establishment of Kenya’s first milk bank.
How long has it taken to open? What were the biggest obstacles?
The process of establishment of human milk banking in Kenya started in 2016. It was spearheaded by the NGO PATH, in partnership with APHRC and Kenya’s Ministry of Health, among other partners. It was rolled out in two phases.
During phase one we assessed people’s perceptions and acceptability of using donated human milk. We also looked at how feasible it would be to set a bank up. The results were encouraging. About 90% of participants were positive about it, 80% would donate their breast milk, and about 60% indicated that they would allow their children to be fed with donated human milk.
A committee was also set-up to provide oversight and guidance on human milk bank work in Kenya. They were sent to South Africa to learn more about the human milk banking process. Finally, local strategies were developed.
We are now in phase two of the project: the establishment of a pilot human milk bank in Pumwani Maternity Hospital. This includes the launch of a research project which examines its feasibility, effectiveness, acceptability and aims to estimate the cost of establishing an actual human milk bank in Kenya.
There have been challenges. Being a new concept, there have been some logistical challenges, for instance some of the equipment wasn’t locally available so it took longer to get it all done and installed.
There have also been concerns by some community members and health workers over the safety and quality of the donor human milk.
However, we’ve had support from the government which has been critical in addressing the logistical challenges. Advocacy and communication activities are also being rolled out to create awareness on human milk banking and address any concerns.
What is a milk bank and how does it work?
Human milk banks are facilities that systematically collect, pasteurise, test, store, and distribute donated breast milk.
An effective system has many operational processes to ensure it provides safe, high quality donor milk. They start with screening and recruiting donors who must be healthy mothers with surplus milk beyond the needs of their own child’s. Donors must undergo health checks including tests that screen for HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis B and C. Diseases could be passed to children through breastmilk.
Donors must then express milk in hygienic conditions, after which the milk is pasteurised. This involves heating the milk in a water bath at 62.5°c for 30 minutes followed by rapid cooling.
At the bank, the milk is frozen and stored at -20c. When needed, it’s thawed to room temperature and issued to children who don’t have access to their own mothers’ milk. A prescription by a qualified health professional is needed for this.
Why are they needed?
Although breastfeeding is the most natural and best way to feed infants, many babies may lack access to their mother’s milk. This could’ve happened for many reasons – maybe the mother is sick, hasn’t got enough breast milk or is dead.
From our formative research, 44% of newborns in urban health facilities were separated from their mothers for varying periods of time. This ranged from less than an hour to more than 6 hours and even days after birth. Of these infants, only 14% were fed on mother’s own milk during separation. 36% of the newborns weren’t fed on anything during this period and an additional 23% were fed on formula or cow’s milk.
When breastfeeding is not an option, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends donated human milk as a lifesaving alternative. Particularly for babies that were born early, have low birth weight, are orphaned, malnourished or are severely ill.
Evidence paints a very strong picture in favour of donated human milk over infant formula. It’s more effective in reducing the risk of disease and infections – like inflammatory bowel disease, leukemia and respiratory tract infections – in newborn babies and is better tolerated by babies that are born prematurely.
In the US and Brazil, the use of donated human milk was reported to reduce the length of hospital stay for sick infants and save on the cost of health care.
Given the benefits of using donated human milk over infant formula, the WHO has called for the global scale-up of human milk banks. These are expected to increase access to safe donor human milk.
Is this the first of many?
Although WHO recommends that the milk banks be set up, Kenya is just the second, after South Africa, to establish a human milk bank in sub-Saharan Africa – even though it is a pilot.
We hope that human milk banking will be scaled up in Kenya and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, using the evidence we generate from our research.
-Elizabeth Kimani-Murage; Research Scientist at the African Population and Health Research Center and Adjunct Assistant Professor, Brown University
-Milka Wanjohi, Taddese Zerfu, Esther Anono and Eva Kamande from the African Population and Health Research Center contributed to the writing of this article.
Simidele Adeagbo: What I Learned From The Most Terrifying Winter Olympics Sport
At the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, I became the first African and black woman to compete in the daring sport of Skeleton.
Skeleton, in which athletes hurl themselves on a sled, head first, down a frozen ice track at 80 miles per hour, is considered by some to be the most terrifying Winter Olympics sport. I never imagined I would find myself hurtling down an icy hill on a metal, carbon fiber tray of sorts with no brakes, safety belt or steering mechanism.
But when I discovered the sport about 100 days before the Olympics, I was motivated to take it up in hopes to inspire others, break barriers and shift the narrative around Africa on the world’s biggest stage. I ultimately changed the course of Olympic history and learned about the power of having a vision and pushing the limits to break into unknown spaces.
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At the beginning of my journey, I asked myself two very simple questions. ‘Why Not Me? And Why Not Now?’ I knew that someone had to make history as the first African woman to compete in the sport of Skeleton at the Winter Olympics and I didn’t see any reason why it couldn’t be me and it couldn’t be right then. Despite coming from Nigeria, a place with no ice or snow and having no prior knowledge of Skeleton, I had a vision to become the first African woman to compete in Olympic Skeleton.
We often hesitate to establish a vision for the things we want to do thinking that someone else will do it, while also waiting for a perfect time for it to be done. As best-selling author Mel Robbins notes in The 5 Second Rule, “If you have an instinct to act on a goal, you must physically move within five seconds or your brain will kill it.” Through my unconventional path, I learned how to keep my vision alive by taking action instantly.
As I pushed to break barriers, I also learned the value of embracing chaos and how to keep moving forward. In the sport of Skeleton, you’re on the edge of danger and control at any given time. This taught me to expect and appreciate the chaos that comes with life.
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Before every run, I take down the track, I have a game plan. But when navigating down massive twists and turns going at speeds faster than cars travel on the freeway, things don’t always go as planned.
Through my experiences on the Skeleton track, I’ve learned to embrace life’s chaotic, unplanned moments and adapt as needed along the way. In the same way, as I was beginning the sport, I would painfully bump into the walls on my way down the track. These are called “hits”. Hits slow you down and are to be avoided as much as possible. But in Skeleton, just as in life, hits are inevitable.
On this journey, I learned to take the hits, no matter how big or small and keep pushing forward.
Finally, in Skeleton, flying down the track at crazy speeds, you have to make decisions in split seconds and the natural reaction is to panic. However, panicking is counterproductive as it causes the body to tense up and actually slows the sled down. Remaining cool, calm and collected is the best thing a Skeleton athlete can do.
With more time in the sport, I ultimately learned to trust my instincts, relax and enjoy the ride. Perhaps this is the most important lesson of all as this has become my personal ethos for achieving success in life.
By taking action instantly, embracing chaos and relentlessly pushing forward and relaxing and trusting our instincts, we can all apply these winning strategies for high performance in business and life. Who knew you could learn so much from the most terrifying Winter Olympics sport?
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