Joan Mazimhaka is the CEO and co-founder of one of Rwanda’s leading communication firms, Illume Creative Studio, which has marked a decade of existence. In an interview with Linda M. Kagire, the psychologist-turned-communicator speaks about the challenges experienced over the last 10 years, overcoming them and the secret to ‘staying in the game in a competitive industry’. Excerpts: What was the inspiration behind the studio and what is its vision? Illume Creative Studio came about 10 years ago. We were interested in creating content that supported a new narrative of Rwanda. Our main vision was to create content that would change what you see when you Google Rwanda and Africa. We had been seeing content around Rwanda that was mostly focused on the gorillas and on the Genocide, and we knew that Rwanda was growing and there was much more to see from here. So, our vision was to create the visuals that change that narrative, and then it grew to not only Rwanda but Africa as well. This Is Rwanda’, a book published by the studio. When we started, we were five co-founders and we all had different backgrounds of people who were stronger in marketing and social media marketing, photography, video and content creation and we built teams around that. At the moment we have a team of about six and we work a lot with a lot of different freelance creatives in the country. We pride ourselves in building a network of other photographers, videographers, graphic designers and content creators so that we are not only building things out of the house that is Illume, but also helping other creatives grow and work together on bigger projects. What has the journey been like? Would you say you have achieved what you set out to do 10 years ago? Well, the 10 years have been very interesting. When we first started there weren’t any communication agencies around. There were marketing and advertising companies that were very strong and doing a great job, and that’s usually about selling a product and advertising around a product or a campaign. For us with communications, it’s more about the public relations, the brand development, the storytelling around a brand, a product event or an individual. We were among the first to do that. The beginning was a little difficult to convince people of who we are and what we wanted to do. Over time, as we got more experienced, people could see what it was that we were doing and they were more engaged with what we did, and they started hiring us for more jobs. We started also seeing the creative industry grow. I think before us there weren’t too many people who thought they could make a career out of being a photographer and so a lot of young people now see that it is possible. And one of the most exciting changes for us also is to see a lot of women in photography coming up. We’ve were doing workshops before Covid-19 happened, for women photographers in particular, because people didn’t think they were really there, and they are. We really focus a lot on collaboration with our peers and with younger creatives so that we can build the creative industry in the country. Looking back over the 10 years, I think we have achieved many of the goals that we had set out to achieve. We wanted to change the creative landscape and I believe we’ve done that, but I think many of our goals are still ongoing. We were very excited to move beyond Rwanda and also to other African countries and we have some wonderful people we are collaborating with, but I think these 10 years have been very exciting. It is definitely full of ups and downs, but it’s been really worth the journey. What were some of the challenges and opportunities for you? I think some of the challenges initially were just trying to get people to understand what the value of communication was around their brand. They needed to value why there was storytelling about whatever it is that they were promoting selling or working on. It was up to us to convince people to do something that they had never done before and to trust us with their brand. The opportunities also came from that as well because we’ve been able to work with quite a variety of people, whether it is NGOs and if it’s with the government or private sector as well international organisations, but also musicians and artists and festivals. So, it’s been a great opportunity to be as diverse as possible with what we can do. With the new coronavirus outbreak, businesses have struggled to stay afloat. What was your experience in the pandemic? The outbreak has actually been incredibly challenging for the creative industry. It has actually been very difficult for all of us to find out how we’re going to continue with the outlets that we have created, with the spaces that we have. And so, what it meant for everyone is that they had to be a bit more innovative and we had to take most of what we were doing publicly like events or photography and video and put it all digitally and online. So, what we did as Illume was that we essentially just extended our talents. We had to do a bit more of animation, we had to do a bit more of digital content, we had to use old content and make it new. So, what we did is essentially just pivot and we’ve seen a lot of people in our industry do that. Some of them did not make it through completely, or others had to scale back and lose some staff members, but we can see people coming back again. I think it just gave everyone a chance to reflect on how they do business and how they can change what they do in business when a crisis like this one hits. With the competition in the market, most communication firms don’t stay in business for long. What is the secret of staying afloat for a decade? I think that maybe we’ve managed to survive for 10 years because we have always been changing what we do. We’ve always been growing. We’ve been looking for opportunities that are beyond what we initially set out to do and it’s key for a company to continue to grow over time and continue to look at different paths that you can take. You will always find that there is something that you started to do that is leading you in another direction and you must take the opportunities that are set in front of you. So, I think that’s what we’ve been doing over the past 10 years that has enabled us to stay in business. Dîner en Blanc was one of your trademark annual events but even before Covid-19, it appeared you had dropped the concept. What exactly happened? Do you intend to bring it back? Dîner en Blanc has been one the events that we’ve done for several years now—several editions. Before Covid-19, we had actually done it every year and then we started to skip a year. So, we intentionally skipped 2017 and 2019 because we found that it was better for our audience, if they were kind of missing the event. If we skipped one year, they’ll be a bit more excited for it every other year as opposed to every year. It gives a chance for people to get more creative about their outfits, about their tables and kind of look forward to the event—conceptualising something. The event has really been a great space for people to get creative, to have a night out that’s completely different from what they usually do. It’s also been challenging to find sponsors every single year. Sponsorship for events here can get a bit difficult. They would be a bit more responsive if it’s every other year. So, we did intend to do it in 2020 and of course this (Covid-19) happened. We’re trying to plan for it for next year. It’s something that we found is bringing in people from other countries. We’ve had people from Nigeria, Uganda and Burundi who actually came specifically for the event. We are trying to still create that African feel around it. We were the first ones in Africa to do it, so it makes sense for us to invite a lot of Africans to participate here in Rwanda. Give us a glimpse into the next decade of Illume. Over the next 10 years, we are really excited about expanding beyond the Rwandan and East African borders. We’ve been working in other countries in Southern and Western Africa as well. The big thing for us is to continue this exciting image that has come from Rwanda and applying it across other countries. We have wonderful people we’ve collaborated with and we love collaborating with other African firms, other African creatives and talent, so that we’re telling the full African story. What’s coming up for us in the next 10 years is to expand, not only across borders but even as a company. We recently started a second arm of the Illume—Illume Editions— it is our own publishing house. We published our first book ‘This is Rwanda’ out of our own publishing house and we have others that we have started that are coming up. To sustain the business, we’ve been working really well with clients and we just tend to expand our client base. Our clients have been growing over the past few years to beyond this one market of Rwanda and East Africa, but beyond that I think we also want to work a bit more in collaboration with Rwandan companies. What advice can you give young people keen on starting a business? Entrepreneurship is not an easy space to be in. It requires a strong stomach, drive and no matter what business you’re in, if you’re in the creative industry, or any other industry, it is important for you to first know why you’re doing the business. What gap are you filling? Are people going to be willing to pay you for the service or for the product that you offer? You have to see if it’s a valuable product or service. And you can do that by just starting out with a smaller market and growing bigger and bigger. I think if you’re starting out you will have many challenges and obstacles along the way, but if you stick to your objective it will help you grow. It is also good to look around at successful businesses in the country and see what it is that they did and how they actually managed, look for mentors to guide you in your industry and field. But it is really important to understand that you have to stay ready to change with times, ready to change with the situations and just keep focused on your objective. If the first version of your business is not doing well at this time, think about how you can change it, how you can grow again because the country is really ready to support businesses right now. It is important to jump on that and not get weighed down by what has happened but look forward to the future with what’s possible.