The sound of sewing machines echoes from a distance as you approach one of the busiest factories in Rwanda’s economic zone. Everyone seems busy, concentrating on finishing the work at hand. In this enclosed building, an order has already been placed and the team must work towards beating the deadline.
Derived from the founders Candy Ma and Helen Hai to form C&H, much of the factories production exports to countries such as Belgium. Products from the Rwanda based factory, started hitting the US market as early as April this year.
As we observed the operations from above, there are five lines arranged depending on the type of cloth or design to be made. In the first row, it is the trousers; the rest concentrate on making safety gears and fashion styles out of fabric but this will still depend on the order.
While many people enjoy putting on new clothes, it is quite difficult to stomach the fact that factories and individuals have to do a lot of work before whisking away these clothes in the 40ft containers to the markets.
Besides, huge investments like these require the factory to take on the responsibility of ensuring that workers go through factory-based training before entrusting them with sophisticated machines.
For instance, 24 year old Chadia Munyendamutsa, after completing her studies at College de l’Espoir, took a six-month training before qualifying for work at the factory. As she twists her head away from the sewing machine.
“It is a competitive process. All work is about gaining the relevant training. As you can see I am no longer finding hardships with this machine,” she explains.
Just a short distance from Munyendamutsa’s sewing desk, is 26 year old, Germaine Uwamahoro. Her duty is to ensure that there are no holes or slack areas between the freshly made joints. She picks one cloth at a time, stretches it, then mends those with gaps. In case she finds one that needs more sewing, she will separate it from the others and send it back to the line.
Uwamahoro also joined a year ago and explains that on a daily basis, meeting targets rewards both the factory administration and the workers,
“In fact those who perform as per the set goals are rewarded with bonuses and for me that is a motivating factor,” she explains.
Instructors move between lines, stores and desks to supervise workers in the factory. On some occasions, they provide a hand during manipulation of the fabric or adjusting the sewing machines.
Although 60 per cent of the workers are female, men with skills are hired as well; the procedure is the same and both undertake six months training.
Telesphore Nsengiyumva, 23, makes pockets from a red fabric. Despite working in an environment occupied by many women, working closely as a team makes his work easier. As he stretches his hand to pick another piece of fabric, he explains how diverse styles require different approaches.
“Some are single flat or double, it depends on the order. You may find that you have to completely use different instruments but I am familiar with most of them,” he explains.
Three other 40 feet containers are ready for dispatch to the US market in Atlanta, according to Saidi Hitimana, the human resource and administration manager at the factory.
Strategizing for ‘Made in Rwanda’
As the government of Rwanda strengthens domestic production through controlling importation of second hand clothes, factories like these are expected to play a huge role in feeding the local market.
Hitimana is very informed about the details and points out that come this November, Made in Rwanda garments from the factory will be supplied to domestic buyers.
“Originally we targeted bulk for the international market. After a lengthy discussion we established that our presence in the local market was needed too. We are in advanced stages of ensuring that this happens,” explains Hitimana.
It means that people will be able to wear quality clothes despite the backlash from some people who feel new clothes are costly. Hitimana also dismisses these conclusions saying that such arguments are generated to limit people from buying quality garments.
“It is not the case, whereas people think that old clothes are cheap, they are not. We shall have cheaper ones,” he speaks as he leads us to yet another store with clothes hanging on lines.
“These are some of the clothes we have designed for the Rwandan market, see for yourself, shirts like this cost Rwf 900 and the school uniform could be as cheap as Rwf 800. Even in the imported second hand you will find most clothes going for as high as Rwf 3000; which one is cheaper then?” he asks before leading us to the embroidery section.
Hand embroidery and training
Similar efforts to promote the made in Rwanda brand recently saw this firm reach an agreement with local designers to take on work of some of the clothes. Most of these will require hand embroidery.
The deal is expected to meet the demands for companies such as Nike and Adidas who maintain that their labels should be handmade.
The hand embroidery department has both men and women from various areas of Rwanda.
“Some are from the community but with advanced skills, others are trained designers. Unlike all those other areas, this is very cumbersome since you have to use hands to make the designs complete,” explains Hitimana.
Just below the hand embroidery department is a section where trainees gather. Some are a result of an arrangement that was established between the Workforce Development Authority (WDA) and C&H.
It is here that students spend most of the six months learning from simple clothes like t-shirts before graduating to the main factory.
Diane Kamanzi 22, from Bugesera is one such individuals who work hard to meet the standards for the main factory. Her training ends in September.
“I joined in March, it was not simple at the beginning but with time you know, one gets used to the work,” she explains.
In Rwanda, C&H Garments was first attracted by the Rwanda Development Board but internationally, it shares a lot of experience on the international scale.
One of the founders managed the Hua Jian, a Chinese shoe producer and between 2010 to 2012, it employed more than 2000 workers. The company also has related dealings in Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, Senegal, among other countries.