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.
Noëlla Coursaris Musunka The Trailblazer In The Congo
The story of love, loss and triumph. The story of humanitarian, model and mother, Noëlla Coursaris Musunka.
This is a tale of generational loss. A tale about how, at the tender age of five, a child lost everything she held dear. She lost her mother, her father, familiar surroundings and was relocated from the country she’d come to know as her home. However, in losing so much, she seemed to have gained everything and insists on sharing it with others.
After the death of her father, when Noëlla Coursaris Musunka was five years old, her mother could not afford to keep her and was forced to give her only child (at the time) away in hopes that she would get better opportunities.
Musunka moved to Belgium, and later Switzerland, and was away for 13 years with very little communication with her mother back home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
“It was a tough time… I received two or three letters from my mom and spoke to her only twice on the phone,” says Musunka. On her return, at 18 years, she was so struck by the abject poverty that she vowed to contribute to the education of her brothers and sisters, and would give back to her country.
And she has done so in spectacular fashion.
Musunka has since had a flourishing career as a model and has graced the pages of fashion magazines like Vogue, Vanity Fair, Marie Claire and Elle. The exposure propelled her to pursue her passion for humanitarian and philanthropic work.
When asked about what accolades, such as the one she received from the Nelson Mandela Foundation (in November 2018) and the Enhle Cares Foundation, mean to her, Musunka beams and says: “It’s very special. I’m a pan-Africanist. I love Patrick Lumumba, I love Mandela, I love Sankara. I love all these revolutionary people… who want the best for Africa… The spirit of Mandela is [his] legacy. When people remember Noëlla, I want them to remember my legacy. And my legacy and my message is to give back.”
“I’m very happy that the Mandela family contacted me and said ‘this is what our dad would want. You are a young woman investing in education and that’s the reason we want to honor you’. It’s very touching and I’m not into awards, but this one is very special.”
Since founding the non-profit organization Malaika in 2007, it has grown from a one-room school house to a world-class school that accommodates 314 students of all ages. As the school continues to operate, it plans on adding approximately 30 girls each year.
The Malaika Foundation, which is in the village of Kalebuka, in the southeastern region of the DRC, has also established a community learning center, recreational facilities, 17 water wells and farm land.
This is due to the tenacity and collaborative efforts of 31 Congolese staff members working on the ground in the DRC, and support from a team of 30 volunteers working in the US, Europe, the DRC and other locations.
In Kalebuka, the community plays an integral role in the daily running of the school.
“We have 30 parents a day who come to maintain the school. The whole community is driven. The village takes care of the program and protects it. The community center is good because it’s also important to teach the parents. We have the youth and the parents who come to the community center to learn to read, write, sew, and we have key messages. We also distribute malaria nets.
“So, we have 5,000 people who go there and all programs are free. The school is for free. The staff [members] give of their time, their skills and their money. We have a pro-bono lawyer, pro-bono auditing … [and] we teach the mothers to make the uniforms. We give the girls underwear, socks and shoes.”
The colloquail term ‘say it with your chest’, means to say something with determination, self-assurance and without fear. During her interview with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA at the Da Vinci Hotel in Sandton in Johannesburg in November, Musunka was wearing a t-shirt with the word ‘Revolution’ across it. The education revolution has swept the village of Kalebuka, in the form for Musunka and her team.
WATCH | The Making Of The New Wealth Creators Cover
The New Wealth Creators is the first of its kind list by FORBES WOMAN AFRICA. Herein is a collection of female entrepreneurs on the African continent running businesses and social enterprises that are new, offbeat and radical.
These 20 women have been selected because they have created significant impact in their respective sectors by transforming a market or company, or innovating a product or service, and are pioneering their organization(s) in generating new untapped streams of income.
VIEW THE FULL LIST|Businesses Of The Future: 20 New Wealth Creators On The African Continent
These women come from across the continent, from the villages and the suburbs, and are in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. They have all adopted sustainable development initiatives in one way or another to help solve Africa’s problems.
They may be wealth creators but their businesses, ironically, did not stem from a need to make money, but rather from the need to solve Africa’s persisting socio-economic challenges.
Economically empowering women has shown to boost productivity. It increases economic diversification and income equality, in addition to other positive developmental outcomes.
Simply put, when more women work, economies are likely to grow.
FORBES WOMAN AFRICA put in months of rigorous research, searching near and far for these inspirational entrepreneurs.
We took into account their business model, new ideas, potential, struggles, social impact, growth, influence, resilience and most importantly, their innovation.
Speaking to FORBES WOMAN AFRICA last year at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg, South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, said: “Innovation [is] becoming the cornerstone for our economy going forward.”
As Africa’s population is reported to increase by 53% by 2100, according to the United Nations, new solutions must be created in order for us to keep up.
One question remains: can Africa translate its significant population growth into economic development, and invest this wealth to improve the quality of life?
Entrepreneurship could very well be the answer, or at least, one of the answers.
Last year, the Founder and Chair of the Alibaba Group Jack Ma paid Africa a visit to discuss tangible investment and technology development.
He encouraged African entrepreneurs to take giant leaps in solving the challenges facing the continent and to take advantage of the digital economy.
He said that opportunities lie where people complain.
And these women, through their businesses, have identified just that.
Vijay Tirathrai, director of the Techstars Dubai Accelerator, shared the same sentiments with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
“The new wealth creators, for me, are entrepreneurs who are very conscious about finding solutions in the market place, but from a lens of having social impact or having impacted the environment,” he says.
Tirathrai believes that while servicing consumers, new wealth creators are also “making a safer and a greener planet in the process, eliminating diseases, improving health conditions and advocating for equality for women”.
Women on the African continent have been making headway as drivers of change, and in many ways, they embody new wealth.
They are the true wealth.
As FORBES WOMAN AFRICA, we seek to celebrate such women.
Through this list, money is no longer the central indicator of new wealth creation.
It is about job creation, contributing to healthy societies, recycling waste, giving agency to those who are financially excluded and developing solutions for some of the socio-economic problems we grapple with.
IN PICTURES | Leading Women Summit 2019
These women may all come from different places but they are bound together by one common thread, and that is the thread of new wealth creation.
This compilation is innovative, exciting, inspiring and shows what businesses of the future may look like.
Meet the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA New Wealth Creators of 2019.
IN PICTURES | Leading Women Summit 2019
The FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit which was hosted the by KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Government took place on International Women’s Day (Friday, 08 March) at Durban’s Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre.
Full list of winners | Leading Women Summit award winners
READ MORE about the New Wealth Creators | Businesses Of The Future: 20 New Wealth Creators On The African Continent
The 2019 Leading Women Summit was a full-day event, with an audience of over 500 women.
The goal was to bring together leading, influential women to share their ideas that are idea-focused, and on a wide range of subjects, to foster learning, inspiration and wonder – and provoke conversations that matter. The 2019 theme for the event was the “New Wealth Creators”.
The New Wealth Creators list, which is the first of its kind, was unveiled at the Summit. It is collection of female entrepreneurs on the African continent running businesses and social enterprises that are new, offbeat and radical.
The Summit celebrated a host of female trailblazers, game-changers and pioneers in African business and society.
Supermodel, philanthropist and cultural innovator, Naomi Campbell was the headline speaker among other global influencers in business, sport, science, entertainment and leadership.
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