Rwandan fashion designer and entrepreneur Sonia Mugabo is one of the designers in the country who dared to venture into the clothing business at the early age of 23 without many designers to look up to and yet managed to thrive and survive. In this article, Mugabo reflects on the growth of her brand, challenges and good moments. The genesis Like every graduate from college, Mugabo was on the lookout for job opportunities and she says she saw an opportunity in Rwanda to start a fashion line in her mother country upon completion of her college. Reflecting on the time she started out, Mugabo says it was a brave call to make emphasizing the power of trying things out at a young age. “If you told me today to start a fashion line, I don’t know if I would be as brave because the older you grow, the more you calculate what could go wrong or right,” she said. Discovering talent The Visual Communication and Graphic Design graduate traces her love for fashion back to college where she did an internship as a graphic designer and realised she had a special kind of design which was not for designing graphics. Mugabo said she was also pushed to start a fashion line due to the scarcity of clothes she wanted to wear in Rwandan stores. “I started doing it for me and then my sisters and friends joined to support me and I realised I could turn it into a business,” Mugabo said. ‘It takes a lot not to give up’ - challenges along the way While starting out, the entrepreneur said the challenges she faced were similar to the challenges other African and Rwandan designers face. “One challenge for me was access to resources for example, access to different fabrics, machinery and equipment, was very hard to find,” she said. The mother of one, also added that the fact that she didn’t go to a fashion school was also a challenge though she believes she is creative who could learn the basics. “It’s amazing what the internet does today, you can learn a lot if you do the right research,” Mugabo said. She notes that in the beginning she thought she would work for other people and to her surprise she was her own boss. The entrepreneur says she found herself with only one option which was to learn really fast to be able to do accounting, and people management among other things for herself. Logistics and infrastructure were another challenge Mugabo faced but thanks to the government’s duty remission policy which helped her to be able to ship fabrics in the country at a lower tax rate. “That was really encouraging, the fact that the government was putting incentives in place for us,” she said. When asked how she overcame the challenges she faced, Mugabo who started with one tailor, now employing 25 tailors, said unlike most entrepreneurs who want to get rich very fast and once they make losses for more than two years they give up, she had to use her communications degree to earn money first to invest in her business. “Sometimes you have to find other ways to get to your dream and not give up,” Mugabo noted. The evolution of designs Mugabo said that in the beginning, she used a lot of ‘igitenge’ fabric because it was the one on the market and the one she could afford. As time went on, she shifted to creating couture by using fabrics and incorporating colors and prints. “There’s a lot of growth and I’m looking forward to learning more because the fashion industry always evolves, the old comes back and there’s new. I’ll never stop growing and I’m excited about the journey that I am on,” Mugabo noted. The growth of Made in Rwanda and its contribution to economic growth Mugabo who is also a founding member of Collective Rwanda, a group of four local fashion designers who came together to grow the fashion industry and creative sector, believes there’s potential in fashion like creating jobs and inspiring the youth. “We started creating fashion shows and the statistics show that several people are willing to fly from all over the region to attend these shows,” she said. The businesswoman recognises that they have been seeing support from different people. “It’s very interesting to go to conferences and see people wearing different brands - Made in Rwanda brands-,” she said. Mugabo added that when they started people didn’t believe in Made in Rwanda products but now organisations and different government institutions have Made in Rwanda Fridays. “That’s really amazing and it shows how fashion can become a pillar of economic growth,” she noted. Proudest moments - Dressing Melinda Gates When Mugabo started her online shop, she anticipated receiving many orders but unfortunately, she realised that people do not trust online shops especially African ones. “I was very discouraged because I had really invested in it but one day we got an order from Seattle, and this person ordered three dresses in different sizes,” Mugabo narrates. It really encouraged me because this is the dress that Melinda Gates ended up wearing when she came to Rwanda for the Commonwealth Heads of State Meeting, she added. Mugabo also notes that another proud moment was when she was featured in an article by The Guardian as a ‘Fashion Designer’. “That’s also a proud moment because it also pushed me to delve into this business,” she revealed. Making an impact “It’s not who wears my clothes, it’s about what difference we are making in the community,” Mugabo said, recalling how one of her tailors had recently told her that she had gotten three of her children to college Living with bipolar, helping others Mugabo who is also a mental health advocate, is poised to break the stigma around mental health. “I do live with Bipolar, I do take medications on a regular and I’m just trying to show people that you can have a disorder and still be okay and still be able to work day to day,” she said. Being a mother Mugabo revealed that she was at first afraid of being a mother, wondering if she would make a good mum seeing that she had mental health issues and later on realised it’s possible to be a great mom with all of that. There’s so much pressure for moms and it’s really important not to be so hard on yourself,” she said adding that one should not always be fixated on things but to try and make time to do what makes them happy. Advice to upcoming fashion designers According to Mugabo, the secret to growth is to not give up and not always think that everything is going work out as planned. “There’s gonna be bumpy roads ahead and it’s important to embrace it all. There’s the good, there’s the bad, there’s the ugly,” she stressed. Mugabo added that having a vision is also key to growth in the fashion business. “A lot of times when you're working towards a goal, it motivates you,” she said.