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A few days ago, social media was awash with photos of a shop selling high end African-inspired apparel on Soho, one of the most affluent business areas in London, where the world of fashion converges.

The shop, named Asantii, belongs to Rwandan entrepreneur Maryse Mbonyumutwa, who says she has made it her mission to ensure Made in Rwanda clothing brand stands out on the international arena.

It comes with hard work, she says, but she is willing to put in the time.

The 43-year old is not only the founder of Asantii, but also the Chief Executive Officer of Pink Mango, a multinational group with 23 years of experience in garment manufacturing and the production of promotional items.

Mbonyumutwa says she has worked extensively with garment factories in Asia and Europe but was frustrated when she noticed that the clothing industry wasn’t creating more jobs on the African continent.

She carried a burden that such a huge territory had yet to produce a brand for a worldwide market.

“I have worked for so many brands from countries like France, U.K., Germany, America, even the Japanese Uniqlo but I have never had in hand a technical pack for an African global brand,” she said.

This inspired her to work towards making a difference, by bringing together a group of fashion designers from different African countries.

The Asantii collection, which is inspired by the Swahili word for “thank you,” is the product of a group of 15 designers from Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.

“We are a sustainable and ethical brand, and our positioning is more in what they call affordable luxury. But in terms of pricing, we are cheaper because we want the brand to be affordable on the continent.”

She added: “Originally, I thought of investing in one African brand, and then see how we can scale it up and globalize it. But I’ve been in contact with quite a lot of brands in Africa, and I would say the majority have a problem: they all have amazing creativity, but then the problem really comes in terms of execution.”

Mbonyumutwa said that the main challenge is production infrastructure among other bottlenecks.

“It was like, let’s set up our own brand, and go through what they go through, and then we’ll be able to actually identify what we are missing on the continent to have a few brands emerging.”

“There’s quite a large group that actually lacks just the basic fashion education, so we are hoping to partner with fashion schools internationally and set up a fashion school in Kigali and a designers’ hub so that fashion students can get a space to intern from and exercise their skills,” she said.

She adds: “Between the creativity of the designer, what they’ve drawn on paper, and the garments you’re wearing, there’s so many other professions which are just not available on the continent,” she said, adding that many designers among her group were not aware of the various technical professions that exist in the industry.

Asantii is helping the designers with a production infrastructure and the support of a team in London drawn from the luxury industry.

“While they co-create for Asantii, they are learning the skills, and we will be opening the whole Asantii infrastructure to the brands when they’re ready,” said Mbonyumutwa.

“My dream is to develop the 14 brands to the level they want, because not everybody wants to scale. Some of them want to remain smaller brands, but they still do need the support for execution and product quality,” she added

Working in Africa remains expensive, she said. Asantii sources cotton from Egypt and Madagascar, denim from Morocco and other fabrics from Burkina Faso and Kenya.

While there are no tariffs on exports to the E.U. and the U.K., the African Continental Free Trade Area, which came into effect last year, gives members up to 13 years to eliminate tariffs on goods and services.

“We really hope it will be a reality and they can speed up, because it’s difficult doing business intra-Africa now,” she said. For now, Asantii is sacrificing some of its margins in order to compensate for import duties in other African countries.

“Our ambition is to see Asantii opening in the cities where the designers come from in Africa, and hopefully, the West as well. After London, we are hoping to be in Paris as well, and why not the U.S.?” Mbonyumutwa said.

“Our ambition is to be global, not necessarily to scale massively in terms of volume, but in terms of visibility. We want to share all this wealth of creativity that we have in Africa,” she said.

She concluded that Asantii is soon opening up a shop in Kigali, the first shop was set up in London, and with the fashion industry in Rwanda being dynamic, there is hope Rwanda is going to be the home of fashion.

Credit: The New Times

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