Ysolde and Kevine are the co-founders of Uzuri K&Y, an African-inspired hand-made shoe brand based in Rwanda. They started the business in 2013 after studying Creative Design at the School of Environmental Design and Architecture at the University of Rwanda. The Uzuri factory is tucked away in a residential neighbourhood of Kicukiro. The “factory” is a residential house and groups of four or five people work on different stages of shoemaking: Cutting and Weaving, Leather, Soles, and Sewing. The two-man business has grown since 2013 and now employs more than 20 people in their 20s and 30s. Uzuri may be a young business, but with its young talent and passion, it has already made its name known in Rwanda within a short period of time.
Q) Tell us a bit about Uzuri K&Y.
K: We thought that we should do something that benefits the community as well. There is a high unemployment rate in Rwanda. We weren’t trying to help other people. We were trying to help ourselves, but we simply wanted to involve other people at the same time. We are thinking of purchasing more machines and bringing in an expert for a training in the future. We are trying to relocate and find a bigger and open space where everyone is in the same room.
Q) Shoemaking industry seems very 생소 in Rwanda. Tell us more about the industry and the place of Uzuri within the industry.
K: The shoe industry is very new in Rwanda. We tried to find craftsmen who could do it properly. From the 80s, there was this one place in Rwanda where they made shoes. One of the first employees who worked with us is an older man who used to repair shoes in Kicukiro. The quality is really bad, and he’s among the first people who learned how to make shoes in Rwanda. He had old techniques, but he is open to new suggestions which is good. We go to trade fairs in different places, and we come back and apply that. Shoemaking is a craft which takes a long time to develop. It takes a long for a craftsman to be trained technically and mentally that products have to be done right and on time.
Q) Is there government support for the growing shoemaking industry?
K: The government has recently announced to ban the import of second-hand products to protect local producers in Rwanda. I feel great that the government started talking about the issue. We also participate in meetings with MINICOM. The government wants us to start producing and grow bigger, but we can’t start producing until we have trained skilled labor. We are trying to create a bigger factory, and train people.
Q) What made you decide to get into shoemaking if it is such a pioneering industry?
K: In university, I took a course called ‘Innovation and Design.’ It opened up my mind and made me realize that I could use my ideas and create something new. We don’t need to copy technologies from China or Europe. Rwanda has its own techniques. I started thinking about what kind of technologies Rwanda had, and thought of traditional weaving. What can we do to weave something functional? What if we create shoes? That’s where I got the idea of shoemaking from.
Q) You mentioned earlier that the skilled labor needs to be trained not only technically but also mentally. Can you tell us about the current Rwandese mentality?
K: In Rwandese culture, growing up, we were told to be reserved, speak softly, and not be rude. But I don’t think that speaking your mind sounds rude. Cultures are universal now, so you can do whatever you want. I do whatever I want. The old way is slow, and it doesn’t matter when or what you deliver. If I say that a product is not good quality, the producer will feel bad so you take the product however it is. This culture is blocking us from progressing because you have to respect older people. One of our oldest employees would say, “This(What you’re asking me to do) is impossible.” And I’d tell him, “No, this has to be possible. If we do it together, we can do it.” Now that kind of negative mentality is gone. Rwanda is changing. … percent of the population is youth. These days, I see a lot of Rwandese youth on social media humorously mocking our culture. “Rwandan parents be like …” I love that. I went to Rwanda schools from elementary school to university.
Q) How does it need to improve?
K: Companies that are trying to fight the lack of skills can train people and try to instill good work ethics or import skills. That’s what we’re trying to do everyday. We try to link the workers directly to the client and the final product. We ask them, “Do you think you can wear this? Do you think it will sell?” We try to put in that mentality that the client is more important than anything.
Q) How many stores are there?
K: Two. One is at the Kigali International Airport and the other is at Union Trade Center in Town. We own the one at the airport and franchise the one at UTC. We produce 350 pairs a month. It’s not much, but everything is hand-made. We are looking to increase to 650 pairs/month by April. When we first started out, we used to produce 125 pairs. It was the employee’s idea. They work on Saturdays. They actually reduced their lunch break. It used to be 2 hours. We gave them two hours. But now it’s one hour.
Q) Advice for other young people looking to start a business?
Y: I think that the people around us had a big influence on us to go after our dreams. Our president always says “Be creative.” There are so many opportunities for young people, including women. Most of the times, young people take risks because they are more well-positioned to take risks. And they’re the ones willing to try things out. I think it’s important to believe in yourself. There is a reason why you have a certain dream. I think it’s important to share your dreams. Some people will tell you, you’re crazy, but it does challenge you to keep working on it. Crazy people change the world. It challenges yourself to think further, why do people think it’s crazy? Maybe I need to redesign it. The more research you do, the better you’d be able to explain it to others and implement it. You can start from zero. You don’t need millions to start a business. It’s okay to make mistakes.
K: I think the first thing is attending business seminars. I would look for online business trainings for women. I would spend all my time working on a business plan. One big step we did was register the business. That pushed us. Lastly, forget about making money fast. And quit your job. It’s a scary step that you’re not willing to make, but that might be the only change to help you come out of your comfort zone.
Q) What does Uzuri mean?
K&Y: Goodness, excellence, beauty. It’s Swahili.
Q) Did you ever experience ‘glass ceiling’ in the business sector?
K: Rwanda is trying to fight against that in the public sector, but in the private sector, it’s very hard. The movement is starting. Even these days, someone sees you and says “Wow, that’ extraordinary.” People try to compliment us. We are thankful. But they undermine capabilities. It’s not extraordinary. That’s an insult to all the women. The perception that a woman cannot deliver as a man is still there. Even numbers show that women pay back loans at a higher rate than men. But it’s still hard for women to get loans, especially if they are married then they need husband approval for a loan. Thank God we’re not married. (Laughs)
Source: RwandaKorea (Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Rwanda)