Samantha Freedom Ahirwe says that she founded Posh Creative, a local footwear company, with two social aims; empowering vulnerable women and making sandals from easily available material.
Her choice of materials was crotchet and rubber as she wanted her products to be unique and have an edge over others in the local market.
Despite being a civil engineering graduate from University of Rwanda, Ahirwe’s creativity and love for art led her into the fashion industry.
Currently, the young entrepreneur’s products are fast penetrating the local market largely driven by her firm’s flexibility to tailor make clients’ orders including shape, colour and designs.
Each pair retails at Rwf15000 with bulk buyers getting discounts.
Having no formal training in production of footwear, Ahirwe told Business Times that she took time to study the sector, clientele and the market working alongside her instructor who is a professional in the sector.
“I took sometime planning on how to start making sandals, it is not something that I had studied or proficient in but I thought it was worth giving a try. I worked with my instructor where we had to do a test aspects such as durability, comfort and also tried out a number of designs of the sandals,” Ahirwe says.
After establishing that her plan was feasible, she went on a field trip to Masaka to engage vulnerable women in the area who she found eager to work as they sought financial independence.
Following her trip, she signed a number of them for a two-month training to produce footwear.
She started out with capital of about Rwf 16,000 which went into buying materials necessary for production.
In regards to distribution of labour, she focused on sketching and design while her employees focused on production and stitching.
In the initial days, the production process was quite slow, she admits saying it was largely because she had fewer employees who were also getting used to production patterns.
Currently, her production plant located in Masaka-Rusheshe has since expanded to five women (mothers) who work on full time and two who work on a part time basis.
She said that after starting out, it was not all smooth as there were somewhat turbulent times that led her to consider shutting operations.
“I thought the journey would be smooth but it was a bit tough and at some point I almost gave up due to the challenges I met along the way. I have learnt to grind and hold on no matter the situation and I that has made me stronger,” the entrepreneur said.
Ahirwe said that learning being a continuous process, she does not know it all and is still learning on handling issues that arise in the running of her enterprise.
She attributes her progress and current success to the Made in Rwanda campaign which has given prominence and visibility to a range of local products including footwear.
She said that the campaign has increased her interactions with clients and potential clients as well as increased interest on her products.
Customer experiences, she noted, have also served a great deal as a promotional outlet of her products.
As a recent graduate, she has temporary put on hold practicing civil engineering to advance her business until its stable enough.
At the moment, the firm’s production capacity is at about 100 pairs of shoes in a month.
Social enterprise aspect
Other than pursuit for profits and financial gains, she had an aim to use her firm to give back to vulnerable women by empowering them to acquire skills and generate income from the skills.
With some of them having experienced domestic violence, she sought to empower them with skills that could reduce their dependence on their spouses.
“I believe that if women were financially independent and able to contribute to the financial growth of their families, they wouldn’t go through domestic violence because they would be playing a huge role in their families too,” she noted.
Ahirwe figured that that domestic violence and poverty could be averted if vulnerable mothers have skills that can be used to generate income.
Her firm, Posh Creative, recruits vulnerable mothers, trains them how to make handmade crochet sandals and connects them to the market as they gain income.
Through the skills acquired, women can start up their own innovations and employ their fellow women, widows and youths which can reduce the on gap of unemployment.
Like many other start-ups in the country, she is yet to have an outlet to expose her products which she says would increase her access to the market.
“We do not yet have an outlet to expose our products, we sell online and that can be challenging sometimes in terms of visibility as there is no physical communication between the buyers and us, however we are currently working on setting up an outlet to give our clients easy access to our products,” she said.
The firm also somewhat high operational costs considering that the raw materials are imported from Kenya.
“I would say that the women I work with inspire me to keep going, sometimes it gets hard and I feel like giving up but when I see these women happy and very passionate about what we do, I feel responsible for their financial growth, which keeps me moving. I know we fight for a good cause and in the years to come we will see that what we went through was all worth it,” the 22-year- old added.
Going forward, she said that she is in the process of expanding her market reach as she is set to start exporting her sandals to Belgium beginning June this year.
This, she said, could see her increase the number of women she works with and consequently the social impact of her venture.
Advice to fellow young entrepreneurs
“I would encourage the youth to believe in themselves, they have to identify what they are passionate about and see how they can use that to benefit themselves and other people. It will get hard often but when you fight for a good cause, somehow the universe has a way of giving you the strength you need to keep going,” Ahirwesays.