For many years, 45-year-old Bertha Uwamwiza tried out several businesses including selling perishable foods, but it did not work. However, in 2006, the mother of five ventured into tailoring and it marked her first step to success.
Uwamwiza joined hands with other women in Kicukiro and formed a tailoring cooperative known as Cooperative de Couture de Kicukiro (COCOKI) in 2008.
“I used to sell vegetables in the market but the profits were not enough to supplement my husband’s income.
With five children to look after, I decided to take on a course in tailoring. It lasted six months and today, I can say it’s paying off,”Uwamwiza says.
Video: Local women combat poverty by embracing African couture. Source: The New Times/YouTube
Three of her children have completed high school, thanks to the money she gets from tailoring. On average, in a day, she makes Rwf 4,000 but during the months of August and December, the business booms.
She says their kind of work requires patience and perseverance to make a breakthrough.
“Today I own two sewing machines and I train other young women. And this is what has kept me going. My advice to women is simple, start small and you will achieve all the goals you set. My next goal is to see my children go to university, and I’m hopeful that it will happen,” Uwamwiza says.
COCOKI was subcontracted by Matthew Rugamba, a fashion designer and founder of House of Tayo, now behind the classy bowties made out of African fabric.
“There is dignity and class associated with a bowtie and this is partly why I started House of Tayo. Many people don’t know the good things that come out of Rwanda so I wanted to create something that one can look at and instantly inquire about it,” Rugamba says.
Rugamba also says that on average he sells 20 to 40 bowties a month and this is usually between the months of May and September, which he attributes to the many weddings.
When asked why he chose COCOKI to make the bowties, Rugamba says, “I chose them because they are very professional. They work really hard and this caught my attention. When I decided that I wanted House of Tayo products to be produced locally, I wanted to do something that empowered the local community and give them a sustainable income. The COCOKI cooperative always deliver the product in the agreed time, they communicate and I can say I just got along with them from day one. We have a great work relationship.”
Rugamba adds that he supplies the material used to make the bowties and other products.
“When we are working on a new product, I’m at the workshop with them for two days. We sit down and I show them the dimensions, they do the samples with the material I selected and when they understand the process, they make a few. We see how the market responds to them and that is when we decide on making more. We are a team,” says Rugamba.
House of Tayo products, especially the bowties, have graced several runways, including the 2012 Africa Fashion Week in London.
Jacqueline Mukandahiro, 37, also a residence of Kicukiro, is among the 28 members of COCOKI that make the popular colourful bowties from their Kicukiro workshop.
“We make at least 30 bowties in two or three days. The bowties are tricky to make and require a lot of patience. But Rugamba has marketed us well and we receive many clients,” Mukandahiro explains.
Mukandahiro, the Vice President of COCOKI, says despite the progress, they face some challenges.
“We started off with limited equipment and very few people had confidence in us so only a few contacted us. This led to some members quitting. But today, all of us have sewing machines; we also have a market for our products in and out of the country. For example, besides House of Tayo, Indego Africa hires us to make different things and they market some of our products on the international market in New York, while locally, our products are showcased at Rwanda Nziza in Kiyovu and Chez Lando Hotel,” Mukandahiro says.
COCOKI makes products ranging from clothes to bags and interior décor, mainly using colourful African fabric.
Mukandahiro also says they lack a permanent home for their cooperative since they rent the place they use as their workshop.
“We are hoping to have a permanent home for COCOKI and that’s one of the many future plans that we have,” Mukandahiro says.