What does it take to make local designs a success on a much wider scale, say the European market? The product has to be of top quality and reflect on the country of origin. That’s what Apollo Bahizire Bitorwa and his team of tailors at Afriek Rwanda do to produce fabrics for the European market, through a Dutch-based company started by Sivan Breemhaar in 2013, in The Netherlands and in Rwanda. The company specialises in making garments out of kitenge fabric. Bahizire, the manager of Afriek Rwanda, says most of their dresses are exported as a way to showcase what Africa has to offer through print. “Initially when we started, we used to buy kitenge fabric locally, or from Uganda, but we had a challenge with Vlisco, a Dutch company which copyrighted kitenge, stopping us from exporting kitenge to the Netherlands. “In 2017 we started to see how we can make our own fabric here in Rwanda and as of today, we import cotton from Tanzania and make our own fabric. Our fabric ‘Organic Cotton’ is our speciality in Rwanda,” he says. Bazihire and his team work with designers to make dresses out of the fabric, which is printed by UTEXRWA, for export to the Netherlands, Germany, UK and now U.S. The company debuted its ‘Imigongo’ dress made out of African print, which is now the priority commodity. Afriek works with two designers, Crista Uwase, a Rwandan, and Sephane Barbier, from France to churn out the best dresses suited for the export market. Locals too can buy while local designers can also buy the fabric to come up with their own designs. Currently, Afriek Rwanda exports between 40 and 50 organic cotton dresses every week. According to Breemhaar, she started the company to change the narrative and prove that equal collaboration between continents really works, meaning that all continents are at the same level and can listen to each other, rather than one continent coming off more superior than the other. Her theory was formed by Rwanda as a country and Rwandans as a people and what they stand for. She believed that creating beauty in Rwanda and selling it across the globe would be the thing that would really benefit “all of us”, rather than coming with development aid. “I really wanted to start an ethical business, based on equality and focusing on really creating beauty together with the people in Rwanda and learning from their skills, talents, culture and mind set. “We did that for at least seven years and then we had to stop and switch to organic cotton which is locally-made, out of which we make the dresses,” Breemhaar says. Rather than making a collection of designs, she started with the dress alone because she wanted to do one ethical thing at a time and do it really well, using organic cotton and through the local and traceable value chain. She also wanted to make sure that the single item would put the spotlight on the women who sit behind the sewing machine as a way of empowering them. The dress made by Afriek can be described as ‘multipurpose and versatile’, you can go to a party, to the beach, wear it at home, pregnant or not and comes in different sizes. “The next item we’re planning to make is a shirt, unisex shirt for men and women, and what’s special about the dresses is that the print was designed by Crista Uwase, a Rwandan artist. “We’re very proud to have worked with her and she was inspired by ‘Imigongo’. So, it’s really about cross-cultural collaboration,” says Breemhaar, who says she has no background in fashion. Her background is in international relations, politics and human rights, which is how she picked interest in Africa in the first place. But the journey has not been without challenges. They still have to import some of the fabric which cannot be found on the Rwandan market, with the market being flooded by cheap fabric from China. They also import accessories like buttons, tags etc., which cannot be produced locally. However, they hope to expand their production capacity to produce some of the things they still have to import. The challenges with Vlisco, the renowned kitenge fabric manufacturer, became an opportunity in 2017. Today the company employs at least 14 people in Rwanda and many more who supply services externally. Currently, Afriek Rwanda exports between 40 and 50 organic cotton dresses every week. It has become popular with the European markets because it represents the Rwandan culture, with its ‘Imigongo’ design which is now a trademark. “People are appreciating it because it is made of organic cotton and it is Made in Rwanda,” Bazihire, 45, says. Amiina Mutesi, 32, one of the women working with Afriek, says that before joining the company she didn’t think being a tailor can sustain one’s family sufficiently, same as Moses Habimana, who started working with the company in 2015. “Our lives changed tremendously. I have been fully employed since, guaranteed a place to work and I can feed my family. Even at the time when others closed, we continued to work because of the demand,” Habimana, 42, says. Afriek Rwanda shop is located at Impact Hub, Kiyovu, in the City of Kigali.