The case for Design in Rwanda

kevine Mpirimundu, co founder of uzuri k&y making a contribution during a panel session.

What is Design?


It is a question that confounds policy makers in government, ordinary Rwandans, even students of Design alike.

At a one-day symposium organised by the University of Rwanda’s Department of Design, in partnership with The University of Dundee in Scotland that took place in Kigali on Thursday, participants shared knowledge and brainstormed ways to create more awareness about the design value chain.

The first of its kind symposium was held at the Impact Hub co-working space in Kiyovu, and drew lecturers and students from the Department of Design (Product Design option) of University of Rwanda’s College of Arts and Social Sciences,  two Design lecturers from The University of Dundee, and a handful of local creative designers.

The forum further sought to understand the potential for Design to actively transform lives and spur economic development in the country.

With specific focus on Textile Design, participants shared insights on the current state of Design in the country, and the need to establish key challenges and opportunities in the sector.

The forum opened with introductory remarks from Henry Miheso, the Head of Creative Design at the University of Rwanda:

“Our ultimate goal is to transform lives in Rwanda by co-creating a self-sustaining model of entrepreneurial design education that supports the needs of local communities,” he remarked.

Miheso revealed that since the Department of Design was created in 2010, it has registered ‘a lot of successes but challenges still abound’, with less than 100 Design graduates to date.

“Enrolment stood at 124 students this year. Normally we take in 25-30 students per year, but this year we took in 72, so we have a bit of a challenge, but we’re trying to manage it. Design is a studio based course, meaning learners work from work tables in their spaces.

This requires more resources than the non-studio based courses which offer only lectures. Lectures contribute only 25 percent of our classes. The rest is studios and laboratories. Design is expensive worldwide, hence the need for more investment before we can reap.”

The idea for a symposium, Miheso stressed, ‘has been long in the offing, because we had never had a conversation on design. So we started by looking for grants, and in my research stumbled upon the University of Dundee.”

Pete Thomas, the Academic Head of Design And Craft at Duncan Jordanstone College of Art and Design, an affiliate college of the university of Dundee described the symposium as “a great example of serendipity”.

He travelled for the symposium with Dr. Frances Stevenson, the Associate Dean, Quality and Academic Standards at The University of Dundee in Scotland.

Frances had been to Rwanda in 2010, at the invitation of the Rwanda Development Agency and the British Council, to asses design opportunities in the country.

Last year, Henry Miheso wrote to Stevenson about the possibility of a partnership between the University of Rwanda’s Department of Design, and The University of Dundee.

 “The day that Frances got that email was the same day that I’d gone to a big workshop in the university about some funding that would be made available by the British government to support achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and one of the key things they said in this meeting at the university was that the best way to achieve the UN SDGs is to educate women,” explained Pete Thomas.  

“I spoke to Frances about it and we thought there was a great opportunity to integrate textiles education with educating women into entrepreneurship. That’s how the symposium came about.”

He defined Design as “using creativity with a process led approach to identify problems and opportunities, and then deliver creative solutions.”

He explained that the symposium’s main goal is to foster a self-sustaining community in Rwanda, “a community that is led by Rwandans and that is focused on Rwandan issues”.

“There are connections that need to be made between education and the design professionals here. The differences are not very big as the culture here is quite similar. There are people working at a very high level, and it feels very similar to the way design is working in the UK.

What feels different is that maybe it is not valued enough at an educational level. There’s not enough funding and resourcing that is being put into it, and there’s not enough support from the government for business. But there are people doing highly interesting and high quality work, and that’s amazing to see.”

Among the local creative designers in attendance were Ysolde Shimwe and Kevine Kagirimpundu, co-founders of local show line, Uzuri K&Y:

The two identified access to finance, and finding skilled labour as some of the biggest challenges the startup has faced since its inception in 2013.

Shimwe and Kagirimpundu are both Design graduates from the University of Rwanda’s Department of Design (Huye Campus), and one of the department’s early success stories.

The two started Uzuri K&Y while still pursuing their Design program. 

“We started out making shoes, bags, and clothes, but after a lot of training programs we were challenged by our mentors and finally decided to concentrate on shoes,” Shimwe explained.  

“It was very challenging at the beginning because we got people that had not gone to school and taught them to make shoes. These were people with no idea about working in teams, so we had to train them from scratch.  All we did was research and try to find creative solutions.”

In six years of operations, the shoe brand now runs two retail stores, one at the Kigali Heights complex, and a second one at the Kigali International Airport. The brand is currently exported to East Africa, Europe (The Reunion Island), and soon to hit the Australian market.  

“This symposium was very helpful especially for us Design students because we got to meet people who are out there, who have already taken the step to be entrepreneurs in this field and who are quite successful despite all the challenges,” revealed Sandra Kayitaba, a Design student specializing in the Product Design option at the Huye Campus.

“We got to experience what other advanced universities like Dundee are doing, and what kind of procedures they go through when doing their design projects. I would say we covered half of what we were supposed to cover in the Semester. I think Design should be taken as a tool that shapes and helps our society and eventually it will because the country is developing very fast.”

Otieno Nondo, a lecturer in the Department of Design, University of Rwanda described the symposium as “an eye opener to the students”:

“Some of them don’t even understand what design is. During the discussions we compared how they teach design in Scotland, and how we teach here, how they approach the curriculum and evaluate the quality of designers. We also talked about the possibility of exchange programs between the two universities.”

Fleur Kayihura, an official from the Rwanda Industrial Research and Development Agency (NIRDA) described design as “one of the biggest challenges of the government”:

“There is still lack of knowledge on things like pattern making, and cutting cloth. Everything is done randomly. In order for us to have an industry that is competitive, we need to train those people. So we provide capacity building through workshops.”

Currently NIRDA works with nine shortlisted companies in the garments sector. “Our work is to aid acquisition of technology and capacity building knowledge and machinery to boost their competiveness in Rwanda and internationally,” Kayihura revealed. 

At the end of the forum, participants pointed out some of the critical challenges facing the local design industry. These included a lack of skilled practitioners, the limited number of women and girls in design fields, lack of branding, the high pricing for local design solutions, and general apathy right from a policy level.

They resolved to kick start a social media hash tag to spark a national conversation about design in Rwanda, and use it to lift the understanding of design in the communities.