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Rwandan entrepreneur’s quest to empower women in local clothing industry

Staff members working inside the production room of New Kigali Designers and Outfitters in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Emmanuel Dushimimana, bird story agency

Chantal Murebwa, the founder of New Kigali Designers and Outfitters, transformed a small venture with just two tailors and one sewing machine into a thriving fashion company. Her commitment to empowering women, combined with government incentives for Made in Rwanda products, led to the employment of close to 300 individuals - primarily women. Now, as the factory plans to expand further, Murebwa’s mission continues.

Patrick Nzabonimpa, bird story agency

Standing in front of a two-story brick building, Murebwa admires the crisp white paint. She has witnessed the entire journey of this building: from its foundation being laid, to its transformation into what it is now: New Kigali Designers and Outfitters, a thriving garment factory.

Located close to Kigali Genocide Memorial, the company founded by Murebwa employs 280 workers, over 80% of whom are women.

"When I started, those who were into tailoring were older women. But as we grew, we found a need to involve younger women because they learn quickly,” Murebwa said.

In the reception area, an array of finished garments, ranging from t-shirts to coats, overalls, and shirts, all in vibrant colours, are a feast for the eyes.

In the cutting room, workers operate cutting machines, turning out collars and sleeves.

The production room, where the cut garment pieces are assembled, is on the second floor. State-of-the-art tailoring machines hum, tended to by workers in matching black t-shirt uniforms with the factory’s motto ‘Home of Tailor-made Garments and Branding".

Some of the finished t-shirts after being packed in the finishing room of New Kigali Designers and Outfitters in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Emmanuel Dushimimana, bird story agency

In the finishing room, the assembled garments undergo thorough ironing, quality checks, and careful packaging by the factory’s staff.

A humble beginning

It all began in 1995 when Murebwa was just 24, in the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide, a period of devastation for the country.

“There were a lot of challenges but also opportunities. I was inspired by my passion for fashion and women's empowerment. When I started, I had one sewing machine and two women staff, and we were focusing on enlarging or reducing the size of women's clothes. We later secured a gig to make uniforms for security guards and progressed,” the entrepreneur explained.

Murebwa registered New Kigali Designers and Outfitters as a company in 1998, employing five tailors and by 2005, her workshop had expanded to include 20 tailors.

Recognising the high demand and numerous opportunities for growth, Murebwa began seeking financial support.

"I obtained a loan from BCDI, now Ecobank, by showing them a contract I had won to produce uniforms for security guards, and I repaid it well,” she recounted. “Then, in 2003, Bank of Kigali extended another loan to me for acquiring the land where we constructed this factory."

In line with the Made in Rwanda campaign initiated in 2015 to promote the consumption of Rwandan-made goods, Umurerwa's factory acquired high-tech machinery, facilitated by National Industrial Research and Development Agency (NIRDA). The factory also received a skills development facility from the German Development Agency (GiZ) to enhance technician capabilities, which were previously lacking.

Since its establishment, the factory's workforce has grow from 80 to the current 280. Its clientele includes both corporate entities and individuals, with a growing presence across all provinces of Rwanda.

Chantal Umurerwa, the Managing Director of New Kigali Designers and Outfitters during an interview with bird story agency in her office in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Emmanuel Dushimimana, bird story agency

Murebwa's factory has been a lifeline for several women, including Marie Mukasekuru, a member of the production team, whose life was transformed after meeting Murebwa who taught her weaving and tailoring. This came after Mukasekuru endured the hardships of losing her parents in the Genocide.

"I acquired tailoring skills from Chantal. I can now craft pants, Lacoste t-shirts, create buttonholes, and operate various machines," Mukasekuru remarked, adding that she has been able to purchase land and a house in Kigali and save for her child's education, all thanks to the trade she learned.

Several women from the factory have since established their own workshops. Louise Uwimana, now running a workshop in Kigali’s town centre, is one of them.

"Umurerwa played a big role in honing my skills. She supported me during my time at her factory and continues to do so as I manage my own workshop. Her influence is seen in this industry, and many women, including myself, continue to benefit from her guidance," Uwimana shared in her workshop.

Murebwa’s significance is also echoed by Elodie Monique Vestine Fromenteau, a local fashion expert and founder of the IZUUBA fashion brand. She highlighted the importance of women-led ventures in the local fashion industry, citing Murebwa and herself as examples.

"As a woman, I believe we are very detail oriented from the choice of fabrics and colours to the choice of buttons and stitching. Also, as a woman working in a men dominated industry, it is also very important for me to collaborate with other women. Having workshops or mentorship led by women for women in the fashion and textile industry would be a great idea, but also having financial support such as grants or funds targeted for women entrepreneurs in East Africa would be wonderful," Fromenteau said.

"If you look around, you'll see many women founders of fashion and textile ventures in Rwanda. We've really taken big steps in providing employment opportunities for other women and positioning Rwanda on the fashion map," she added.

Challenges and future endeavours

Elodie Monique Vestine Fromenteau, a local fashion expert who owns the brand IZUUBA posing for a picture. Photo: Willy Mucyo

According to Statista Market Insights, the apparel market in Rwanda is experiencing a rise in demand for locally made clothing, matching the observations made by Murebwa and Fromenteau. As of 2024, the market's revenue reached US$426.10 million, with a projected annual growth rate of 3.41% between 2024 and 2028.

The statistics echo a 2023 UNESCO report, 'The Fashion Sector in Africa: Trends, Challenges, and Opportunities for Growth,' which positions Africa as one of the next frontiers for fashion. Rwanda is also listed as an African country with a growing local high-fashion luxury brand presence.

Despite these positive trends, Murebwa still faces challenges that hinder her workflow.

She identified access to finance as a major obstacle, citing the high financial requirements and the lack of substantial collateral for her company. Moreover, the impact of the rising dollar is a concern, as her company relies on importing all its raw materials.

“Delays in shipping also disrupt my factory’s workflow when urgent orders are required,” she said.

“Acquiring skilled manpower remains a challenge, especially for roles like textile engineers and quality assurance personnel, as they are costly to hire from abroad. I suggest that the government establish faculties related to these trades in universities to develop local talent,” she added.

On a personal note, Murebwa continues to grapple with balancing her work life and family commitments. Her business requires a significant time investment, and she often finds herself struggling to find a balance. She also perceives this challenge as a big obstacle for many women entrepreneurs.

However, Murebwa advises girls and women interested in starting a fashion venture to ensure they have a passion for the industry and the necessary skills to succeed. She also encourages them to work hard and make savings.

Looking ahead, Murebwa's New Kigali Designers and Outfitters is in the final stages of opening a second phase of its factory at the Kigali Special Economic Zone. An economic zone is described as 'a geographically specified and physically secured area, offering certain incentives including more liberal and simplified economic regulations for businesses to physically locate and operate within it,’ by The New Times, a national newspaper.

"The new phase will house 300 staff [in addition to the 280 already employed] and incorporate high-tech machinery. This will enhance our ability to target export markets. Our focus will be on producing a variety of t-shirts to ensure affordability for all," Murebwa concluded.

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