October 8, 2016
RUGERERO, RWANDA — Soft, warm rays of sunshine stream through the roof of Valentine Akineza’s small home, which doubles as her workshop.
A wood fire burns brightly. Atop it, a saucepan of water boils. The table is scattered with cloth, gloves and sachets full of colorful powders that are soon to meet the water.
Dressed in an apron smeared with color, Akineza, 30, a mother of three, mixes the powders as she prepares to dye a piece of what will become brightly colored fabric that is a staple for women here.
Most cloth produced globally is manufactured in large factories, but Akineza has become known for her handmade designs here in Rwanda’s western district.
First, she buys white cloth. She mixes and boils colorful powders, twists and dips the fabric and then hangs it to dry.
Starting the business wasn’t easy, but the payoff is rewarding, she says.
“I thank God each day for this work,” she says. “I used to depend a lot on my husband, but today I am capable of managing alone without any help.”
Brightly colored, boldly designed cloth has special value to many Africans. When offered as a gift, it is a symbol of respect, love and gratitude.
The cloth is available in varying qualities, which determine the price. Nearly all fabrics in Rwanda are imported, so Akineza is one of just a small number of hand-dyed cloth providers here. And she sells it at an affordable price.
That’s significant: Imported secondhand clothes, which tend to be cheaper than those locally made, are now taxed and will soon be banned. Local clothing makers are being encouraged to increase their production.
Janviere Uwimana, GPJ Rwanda
Western-style clothes have been en vogue here since the time of colonization, and brightly colored patterns, including the popular wax-cotton fabric known as kitenge, have fallen out of style.
Still, kitenge and other types of fabric made in Africa are worn by both men and women. Tailored into women’s blouses, cut into men’s trousers, wrapped as dresses and made into handbags, the fabric is a symbol of the region.
And prices for those fabrics are on the rise in Rwanda. Depending on the quality, six-yard lengths sell for $10 to $120, in addition to costs for having the fabric sewn into clothing. Those costs are out of reach for many rural Rwandans who earn less than $1.25 per day.
According to the African Development Bank, only 2.6 percent of the Rwandan population is categorized as stable middle class with the capacity to spend between $4 and $20 per day.
Akineza knows what it’s like to struggle to make ends meet. She’s had a passion for color and design since she was a girl, but she never attended school for the trade. She learned some sewing skills at her church and even managed to take a six-month course in cloth cutting and design. But she didn’t have the money to buy a sewing machine of her own, so she gave up her dream and sold bananas instead.
A year later, she learned of a course in fabric manufacturing. The fee was 50,000 francs.
“50,000 francs was a huge fortune for me,” she says.
Akineza saved 30,000 francs through working for a banana vending cooperative, then she borrowed 10,000 francs from a friend. The woman who ran the training accepted 40,000 as payment. Once Akineza completed the course, she developed her own product ─ a form of dyed cloth.
“It is indeed my dream,” she says. “When I meet someone who is wearing a fabric I made, I feel very proud.”
This is the time for entrepreneurs to thrive, Akineza says.
A three-yard length of cloth dyed by Akineza sells for 6,000 francs ($7.40). She sells 40 pieces of cloth per month, earning her nearly $300. Of that, she takes home about $110 per month and invests the rest into a local savings cooperative.
Her husband, a bricklayer, is unemployed, but Akineza says her family is thriving.
“My work is very lucrative, since I have clients who are loyal to my products,” she says. “I am capable of paying my house rent, paying school fees for my children, buying clothes for myself and for my children, feeding my family and paying for a community-based health insurance plan.”
She has even hired a small team of employees.
Chantal Mukandayisenga, 28, a mother of two, works for Akineza.
“I have been working with Valentine for two months,” she says. “I am already capable of manufacturing very beautifully colored kitenge. In addition to that, my children and I have something to wear, since I also manufacture clothes for ourselves.”
Dative Mahoro, 16, Akineza’s sister-in-law, who lives with her, says that she wears clothes made from Akineza’s fabric.
“I love my blue dress which my [sister-in-law] made for me, and I especially cherish its tenderness and softness,” she says, adding that she’s learning to make the cloth herself.
Akineza’s work is becoming a favorite of local shoppers, too.
“Personally, I like the [cloth] made by Valentine because these clothes are made of high-quality cotton, and in addition they are cheaper compared to other kitenge,” says Stephanie Dusabemariya.
But some people are suspicious of the cloth’s quality.
“Making a cloth without a machine at home! This loincloth does not have any guarantee,” says Sandrine Uwitonze, who works as a small-scale, cross-border trader between Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.
That “homemade” aspect of Akineza’s cloth could be a moot point soon. She hopes to move her operation into a formal workshop and store. She plans to scale up her business in advance of the ban on secondhand clothing.
“It an opportunity for me to shine,” she says. “I even dream of participating in trade fairs and exhibitions such as the Made in Rwanda Expo. I hope I will get investors to support me in achieving my dreams.”
Ndayaho Sylvestre translated this article from French.