It is a common belief that children take after their parents or guardians, who very often become the easiest and most convenient role models to look up to. This can be appropriately said of Josue Plante Niyomugenga, the founder Aflimba, a Rwandan start-up that has been dedicated to leveraging rural artisan tailoring talent and craftsmanship to improve the lives of women and girls since 2018. Despite completing his studies in business management and later pursuing a software engineering course, Niyomugenga did not settle for practicing what he learned in school but instead focused on doing something he grew up around and loved—tailoring and sewing. ALSO READ: What support do artisans require to grow Made-in-Rwanda products? Born 27 years ago in Jabana sector, Gasabo District, to Chantal Mukasharangabo who raised him singlehandedly, Niyomugenga grew up in a community where people, especially women, survived on their tailoring and sewing skills. However, for him, regardless of the talent and skills these women, including his mother, exhibited, they were not able to make enough money from what they were doing. Niyomugenga started working while he was still in school, doing what young people call ‘hustling’, juggling studies, and working as a software engineer. Upon graduating in 2018 and working as a software engineer while at the same time nurturing his ‘baby project’, he eventually resigned two and a half years into employment to focus on his start-up, Aflimba, a big leap of faith he took. “When I resigned, I completely went into working full time on my start-up, a creative space for rural artisans, which exists to improve and elevate rural craftsmanship as well as the lives of rural artisans. “We nurture the talents of young girls in rural communities. We start off by training them, one step at a time, to perfect their craft. For example, in the first week we train them how to hold a scissor perfectly,” Niyomugenga said. After six months of training, they are assessed and the best of the group join Aflimba’s production line while others get hired by fashion houses or start their own workshops. Niyomugenga is the creative director where he designs and guides the process of making the ‘limbags’, Aflimba’s signature bags which have since become a popular accessory with growing demand, even on the international market. ALSO READ: Bringing dreams to life: Local artisan on décor, creating beautiful spaces He points out that he came up with the idea after realising that there is a big number of young women who were dropping out of school, getting pregnant and single mothers who did not have a way to sustain themselves. What was even sadder was that these rural women and girls had the skills and ability, not just to think creatively, but also sew, and all they needed was an opportunity and the means to do so. By launching Aflimba Craft School in early 2020, primarily focusing on sewing, Niyomugenga’s mission was to create the next generation of tailors who could earn from their skills. Early inspiration Niyomugenga says that the inspiration behind the start-up was a result of who he is and the community he grew up in, mainly full of artisans, including his mother who was a tailor. While growing up, he noticed that tailors, including his mother, were not able to fully cash in on their skills, solely depending on when the next client would come to order a dress or shirt, but they didn’t produce clothes on a commercial basis. On the other hand, working for others and going through the same work routine, practicing what he studied, had become boring and he needed to do something more challenging. “I grew up in a rural area and it was a community full of artisans who were making little money from the craft,” he said, adding that when he left his home area and started venturing into cities and towns, he noticed that people were overpricing locally made products, some of which did not even meet the quality. Niyomugenga saw an opportunity. He knew people back home who were doing far superior products but they were not able to get a market or expand their businesses. That is how he started recruiting. The idea was to tap into the skills of local artisans, particularly women, and to monetise them, starting with his own mother whose earnings he wanted to boost. He started with his mother from 2017 through 2018 and in early 2019, he hired the first person. ALSO READ: Interior designer on using local resources to boost Made-in-Rwanda They started from scratch with no funding, in the community where he was born, and they sourced from within and started producing the ‘limbags’. Slowly, the initiative started funding itself. To recruit, the start-up calls for applications from local women and girls and they are taken on based on the level of vulnerability. During the six months training, they figure out who has the skills and passion and they are retained. Even those not retained leave with a certificate, a recommendation and the knowledge to monetise their skills or work with other players in the fashion industry. So far, they have trained four cohorts, each with about 20 students, meaning that close to 100 women have completed the programme. They also make sure that they follow up on the women who graduate and don’t stay with Aflimba, including those working for themselves, mainly to know how they are doing and to give them support. Recycling denim into bags Worth mentioning is the interesting aspect of recycling denim, one of the most popular fabrics, into the now famous ‘limbags’. The jeans are bought from local women who move around the city collecting unwanted clothes. Upon collecting the clothes, the women from low-income earning households sort out the jeans which are collectively bought by Aflimba and recycled into bags, ranging from travel bags, backpacks, duffle bags, laptop bags, tote bags, pouches, and more. “Our niche products are bags of different types and functions,” he said, adding that the majority of the raw materials they use are acquired locally and other accessories are imported from the region or China. Currently, they are exporting in small quantities based on orders but Aflimba is looking to expand into the region, especially Kenya and Tanzania, where they have showcased their products in expos and there is demand. At the moment their biggest market is Rwanda, mainly tourists or expatriates who have picked interest in the bags and carry them back home as they depart Rwanda. Changing lives, demystifying stereotypes Niyomugenga said that since they started Aflimba, the lives of women and girls who are involved have been transformed in many ways, mainly because the entire project is built on the lives of the women first. Similarly, the products were well received on the market and as such, the women have been able to earn from the products they make. From their earnings, they have been able to set up a savings group, where they pool together resources and every month one of them gets capital to invest in their personal projects and households. Gentile Aime Ihimbazwe, a 20-year-old with a three-year-old baby, and one of the beneficiaries of the initiative, said that joining Aflimba helped her get her life back on track after going through a tumultuous phase. “I had some tailoring skills but lacked the resources and means. Aflimba gave me the training to improve my skills and most importantly the space to work from. “I am now more professional in what I am doing and I am able to earn from this work to take care of my child and myself. I am very grateful for this opportunity,” Ihimbazwe said. Her story is similar to that of Yvonne Umutoniwase, 22, a school dropout, who joined the organisation at the age of 19 and earned professional tailoring skills to fend for her family. The resident of Kimisagara said that apart from taking care of her parents and siblings, she is able to save and looks forward to setting up her own business in the near future. Similarly, Lillian Muhayimana, 23, didn’t have a chance to continue with her education due to lack of school fees but she was able to join Aflimba in 2022 at the age of 22 and life has never been the same. From what she makes and the savings from their group, she has supported her family and also takes care of herself. She has also bought some livestock including goats which she rears and sells for extra income. Beyond just making bags, Niyomugenga says they wanted to do something of high standard to demystify stereotypes that ‘Made in Rwanda’ products are of poor quality, and they have done so. “When you look at our products, you see the craftsmanship. We didn’t want to do the kind of products where people say ‘oh, so you are doing Made in Rwanda products’ as a way of saying the products are not good enough. “We wanted to do products that can be world class,” he said, adding that sometimes in exhibitions people seem shocked about the quality of the bags and most times they have to take them through the process of making them. Though Aflimba seems to have picked up, Niyomugenga says he believes they still have a long way to go, in terms of making more products, spreading their wings across the globe, and also being able to recycle tonnes of old clothes. He calls upon young people to be more daring and fearless, to tap into their creative potential, adding that there are many amazing things the youth can do, especially if they are bold enough to go for the ideas they have. “It's not going to be easy, but it's worth it. If you have an idea, go for it and go hard every day,” Niyomugenga advised, adding that after some time, success comes and when you look back at where you started, the journey is worth it.