Rwandan designer, Matthew Rugamba, long had dreams of designing for Hollywood’s biggest stars. Since 2011, he has built a loyal following for his House of Tayo brand, fusing African heritage with contemporary designs to create brightly coloured, mixed-print items like bow ties and infinity scarves. But he had struggled to break out from the local fashion scene.
In 2018, he got his break. Lupita Nyong’o agreed to wear a three-piece design of his sketches. After Lupita posted a photo of her brother wearing the suit to her 7.8 million Instagram followers, tagging House of Tayo and using the hashtag #FromRwandatoWakanda, thousands flocked to the brand’s social media accounts. “It was huge,” Rugamba remembers. “It was great for credibility.”
Rwanda is a nation of 12 million people, but has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with aspirations of becoming a middle-income nation by 2035. And Rugamba is the beneficiary of one of a series of homegrown initiatives aimed at sustaining high and inclusive growth in different industries, including the country’s nascent fashion scene.
‘Made in Rwanda’
One of those initiatives is “Made in Rwanda,” launched in 2015, which aims to recapture parts of the Rwandan market from imports while improving the competitiveness of Rwandan exports globally. How? By boosting private businesses and the manufacturing sector, augmenting garment and leather production, reducing operation costs, and helping small businesses, like Rugamba’s, get finance from the government or commercial banks.
As part of this strategy, Rwanda this year will totally ban imports of Western hand-me-downs after years of raising tariffs on such goods in a bid to boost its own domestic textiles industry. Second-hand clothing is a multimillion-dollar industry in Rwanda that employed up to 22,000 people as of 2016, according to a study by USAID.
Despite the enthusiasm, manifold challenges hinder Rwanda’s fashion industry from floating away on a nimbus of success just yet. Designers are particularly concerned with the prohibitive requirements set for them to obtain financing. Rugamba, for instance, says he initially couldn’t get a bank to issue him a point of sale gadget because they didn’t think his business would make money.
In the first two years since the launch of “Made in Rwanda,” the government said total export receipts increased from $559 million in 2015 to $944 million in 2017. To build momentum, Rwanda could learn from challenges facing countries like Ethiopia. Its “Made in Ethiopia” shoe and garment-making sector has been beset with complaints of low wages, inhospitable working environments, and inadequate training at factories.
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