Glitter Trotter: Thank you for joining us today, Pierra! The shop is buzzing and busy, so I really appreciate you sparing a few minutes to talk about Haute Baso!
Pierra Ntayombya: I am glad you are here, so you enjoy both the shop and also our Haute Baso Café – this is a locals’ favorite for a good leisurely breakfast.
GT: Looks like I can just get everything done right in one place today – good food, great shopping, exciting conversation. Let’s start with the latter – can we start with a brief history of Haute Baso? When did you open the doors?
PN: We started in 2014, but at the point we only opened our “virtual” doors because at the beginning, Haute Baso existed only online. And the idea came from this experience of being a “bridge” between Africa and the rest of the world, as I am sure you familiar with. So, Linda – our Creative Director -- was living in the US and coming to Rwanda for holidays; and every time she went, her friends would ask her to bring back something from Rwanda – jewelry, tailor-made dresses, curious, and gifts.
GT: In my early days in the US, I was always carrying tons of Russian dark chocolate for my friends and colleagues in the US.
PN: Ok, so you know how it happens. But then Linda thought, “is there an opportunity to build a proper, formal business?” And that’s how it all started – we recruited four artisans and set up an online shop; our product line initially focused on clothing and accessories.
GT: Let me echo an Instagram mem, “… And how is it going?”
PN: Funny! Well, it’s going great! We have a shop here with a wide range of products, we work with 400+ artisans throughout Rwanda plus several brands from Kenya and other countries. And we have this café. The business has grown a lot!
GT: And how would you describe the essence of your business, Haute Baso, in one sentence?
PN: Our main goal is to show people that it is possible to combine a traditional skill set and a modern-day innovation to create affordable, unique fashion that challenges the narrative on what handmade can look like.
GT: Is Linda a designer by education?
PN: No, she is not. And neither am I. But we both have a lot of passion for fashion and creativity. And let me tell you something – I think Africa is a unique place, where you can still turn your passion into a business or multiple businesses and have a thriving carrier even if you have not been formally educated to do so. I think here, it’s all about your personal drive and a strong, supportive community around you.
GT: I do want to talk about your personal drive and your personal journey in Africa. You are from Rwanda, but you were not born in Rwanda, right?
PN: You are right, I was born and spent my childhood in Canada. Both my parents are Rwandan, and they came to Canada in search for a better life. But in our household, we always knew that we were to “come home” – to return to Rwanda. Rwanda has remained home for us, even when we were abroad – my siblings and I knew that once we completed our studies in Canada, we would return home and build our life here. As the last of three siblings, I took a longer journey – studied for a bit longer, worked for a bit longer. But when my brother was getting married in Kigali, I knew it was my time to go – so I got a one-way ticket to Kigali.
That’s about my journey to Rwanda. As to my fashion journey, I did actually study fashion business. I always wanted to do something in fashion. I did not know, where my career would take me, but I was convinced it would have at least something to do with fashion. And then I met Linda and learned about Haute Baso. I felt that the mission and the values of the brand resonated with me; I loved the creative vision; and so four years ago I joined Haute Baso as the CEO.
GT: Congratulations! And what do you like about Haute Baso’s mission the most?
PN: I believe we are changing the way people in this country think about fashion industry, about the creative sector and creatives themselves. You know, we do not have fashion schools in Rwanda, and there are very few in East Africa in general. Access is part of the reason why people do not go into creative professions here – but access is also reflective of the value the society assigns to creative work. I am sure you’ve heard people in other developing countries saying that a person pursuing prosperity and fulfilment in life should be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. I cannot totally disagree – for continued economic growth and continent development, we need all of those. But as humans, we also need other things – fashion being just one of those elements that make life more fulfilling, interesting, exciting, and engaging.
GT: You are right, but I can also see the point about promoting jobs that have higher potential to create financial independence and stability. Our parents want us to be safe – including safe from financial disasters, from poverty.
PN: Exactly! And the creative sector has not been traditionally seen as the sector to create “generational wealth”. But as a brand committed to art and creativity, I think Haute Baso has been pushing and twisting this narrative by showcasing the creative sector as a viable source of income for an individual and also a valuable contributor to the national economy. And the good thing is that the efforts of brands like ours have been noticed and supported by the leaders all the way up to the President’s office. Some of the new policies, including the made-in-Rwanda policy have given a strong boost to the local brands. The national narrative around the creative industry has been changing, and it’s a great achievement of the strong creative community in Rwanda.
GT: This is the second or third time you mention the creative community in Rwanda – and with a lot of fondness. Tell me more about it – what is special about the creative community in this country?
PN: I think “collaboration” is the best word to describe the essence of this community. I have never been in a “space” like this before, where your direct competitor would also be a person to whom you can tell all about your struggles in business and ask for help. Rwandan creatives work together – they exchange ideas and find solutions, they share knowledge, they have each other’s back.
It was not very easy for me to comprehend, because you do not normally expect or see such relationships within the creative sector elsewhere. But now I love it, and I understand why creatives in Rwanda are so hands-on and risk-tolerant. There are just so many people ready to support you! Whatever you don’t have – somebody will give you, whatever you don’t know – somebody will teach you; you can always lean on your peers. And as a result, people are not afraid to try multiple businesses or many different careers here. Some creatives I know have a formal career while simultaneously growing their own business. People in Rwanda feel free to pursue their passion and make a career out of it.
Surely, you have to educate yourself, and at Haute Base we have been very intentional about advancing the knowledge and skills of our team. But learning is not always about going back to school – it’s reading books, attending webinars and trainings. And the community would guide you to the right resources.
GT: Sounds amazing!
PN: It has truly been great. And the influence of this community is actually the reason why we decided recently to become a multi-brand store – we want to celebrate as much of a culture and diversity of Rwanda and Africa as possible. We do not want the store to be just about us. We want to help our clients have a rich African experience, even if they only have one hour to spend at our shop. Here you can see African art, try on African clothes, taste Rwandan coffee or Kenyan tea, and leave feeling like you just went on a short pan-African tour.
GT: Which other African brands are you carrying at the store?
PN: We have a number of Kenyan brands – ENDO2, Organic Savannah, several others that just skip my mind right now. But as I mentioned, our goal goes beyond promoting individual brands – we want our clients to experience the modern Africa in all the glory of its uniqueness, creativity, curiosity, and many other features that make this continent special.
GT: Is this how you would describe the mission of Haute Base as a brand?
PN: I would say, we are about collaboration, sustainability, and growth. We already talked about collaboration, and why it is important to our brand. When it comes to sustainability, of course we are looking at a range of decisions and activities that are important – what we do with leftovers, where we source our materials, how we are distributing/delivering our products, and so forth. But what is important to me is also the overlap between the sustainability and growth – our commitment as a brand to provide opportunities for our people, from the very bottom to the very top. What is means is that we invest in people, we help them improve, learn, and grow.
GT: Let’s talk about sustainability in the traditional sense – how do you ensure that your ways of working are indeed sustainable?
PN: I will give you an example. We have recently launched a new collection of clothes and shoes made of Tencel. Tencel is a fabric made of eucalyptus trees. For a country like Rwanda, which does not have cotton and would find it challenging to grow and produce cotton, Tencel is the future. For this collection, our Tencel was sourced in Asia. But the success of the new collection is an opportunity for our brand to continue the conversation with the government and development stakeholder on how we can use experience of Tencel producers in other countries to develop a strategy for growing sustainable textile industry in Rwanda. Nothing like thins exists in Rwanda. Yet. Our goal is to open people’s eye on how made in Rwanda might look like if the entire value chain – from growing eucalyptus trees to producing a dress to delivering this dress to the end consumer – is available in our own country.
GT: Change is always hard.
PN: Yes, especially when there is still so much unknown. For example, not many people know what sustainable fabric looks and feels like. What if it’s rough, ugly? Our new collection is a part of our consistent effort to change people’s minds about what “sustainable” is. We want people to see that sustainable fabric is beautiful; we want the stakeholders, including the government, to see that 100% of the materials and production can be done in Africa and in Rwanda. This is our ultimate goal – end-to-end made-in-Rwanda process.
GT: I love it that you are thinking strategically, thinking big picture.
PN: We have to if we are really serious about our goals and mission as a brand. Talking about the Big Picture, we took part in a couple of research projects recently, one of which was the Fashion Revolution. And the main goal of these projects to examine the Made in Rwanda approach to identify the opportunities for improving sustainability while stimulating growth. I was very much involved in the research, mostly as an educator and advocate for the fashion industry, because I believe the opportunities in this sector are endless. For example, as I mentioned – we do not have cotton in Rwanda. But we have eucalyptus trees everywhere, we also have sugarcane. Imagine what we can achieve if we produce our own Tencel and use new technologies to process sugarcane fiber?! I have already talked about the utilization of leftover fabric; this is a known opportunity. But then, there is a whole unexplored sector or repair, reuse, and recycling.
At Haute Baso, we recently launched a recycling program. We ask our clients to bring back their Haute Baso clothes that they no longer wear, and we make new products out of them.
GT: This is very creative! I have not heard about any other brand doing that.
PN: Me neither, but I think this is a great opportunity to educate our customers about sustainability and actually give them a chance to contribute to it. Let’s say a client brings us a maxi dress; the top is a bit damaged, so the dress is just sitting in her closet – and eventually is going to a landfill. We make a skirt out of her dress and use leftover fabric to make some scrunchies or little coin purses. The client is happy to have a new skirt, and we are happy that our clothes did not go to waste and got a new life. This process further incentivizes us to invest in high-quality fabric that lasts and encourages our clients to buy from us because they know we are selling timeless pieces. This is the essence of sustainability – the longevity of the product, the ability to modify and adapt them as your life changes. We want our clients to keep things they buy from us as long as they love them; once they stop loving them – we will make them into something else they the clients will love again.
GT: I really love this concept! I will definitely come back once I stop loving my Haute Baso outfits.
PN: You are welcome.
GT: Can we talk some more about the Fashion Revolution? What was this project about?
PN: Ah! That was a very interesting project that we did in collaboration with the British Council and the Fashion Revolution outfit. The project was designed as a sort of a policy dialogue. We focused on examining policies related to the fashion industry in different countries and provided recommendations based on our own experience but also on the feedback from the broad range of stakeholders. It was a very collaborative process, and the outcome was truly grounded in the current perceptions and challenges prevalent in the industry. I really enjoyed connecting with such a diverse group of people – from fashion consumers and designers to the owners of large garment factories to government officials.
GT: So, what were the outcomes? What did you learn?
PN: For one, people really want to be educated on fashion, sustainability, impact, etc. So, here is an opportunity – to avail education to more people, and this will likely result in more conversations and even more innovations. I believe such cross-country exchanges are invaluable, and we should do more of them. For example, we had a chance to bring a designer from the UK to Rwanda for a few months to help us learn about international standards and common practices in the UK fashion industry. But he also learned a lot from us. We are currently working on a similar exchange with designers from Austria through a program called The Fashion Connect.
GT: Interesting! I would never think of Austria as a fashion destination.
PN: Right?! Yet, they are doing so many interesting things! In fact, they have a well-developed Tencel production industry. And they also experiment with other interesting, new materials; they are also known for great quality wool. You know, the more I talk to Austrian designers, the more I feel that we are very much alike as countries. We both are small and cannot compete with our neighbors when it comes to scale. But we can compete in quality, and if we can find the right niche market – we can even compete internationally. And Austria has been able to do just that – identify their niche market, where they have a reputation for the quality of their products. Thinking about Rwanda, we will never be able to compete with Ethiopia or Kenya, but we can still be a fashion destination if we invest in what we do well, if we specialize and leverage that specialization in the global market.
These are the type of opportunities that feel strange at the beginning, but then give you valuable life lessons. I would never have thought in my life that I would be going to Austria to learn about Tencel production. But I am now convinced that something really exciting will come out of it for Haute Baso. Collaboration breeds innovation, don’t you think?
GT: I fully agree! It takes bringing together several different perspectives to discover a new way of doing something. And that’s what collaboration does.
PN: True! And I believe for us as a brand, it is really important to stimulate innovation, to find new application for the traditional artisan skillset. We don’t want the traditional skills to die out, this is our heritage as people and as a country. These traditions are what makes us unique. But we also have to acknowledge the fact that the world is changing, so we need to modernize. However, modernize should not mean abandon old skills and adopt something from the Western cultures. We need to find a new way to use and enrich our heritage, skills, traditions – to make them feel new and exciting, to enrich the experiences of both our artisans and our clients. This has been a fun part of being at Haute Baso for me – finding things that make us, Rwandans, us – and then finding a way to bring a new life into those things, knowledge, traditions, and even myths.
GT: How do you find the artisans you work with?
PN: We are very fortunate in that it has been a very organic process. I mentioned that we went from working with 4 artisans to now working with 400 of them. And most of the new artisans found us through the work of mouth. Most just came in with their products and said, “Look what I made. Can I work with you?” And we were like, “Cool! Let’s do something together.”
GT: Amazing! And what about your team? I talked to a few of them at the shop, and they all are as passionate as you are, if not more.
PN: We are very lucky to have great people on our team. And we are giving them back for their dedication by creating a space in our company for everyone to be able to share their ideas. We do not have a hierarchy here. Surely, there is a certain level of responsibility that comes with different titles. But at the end of the day, everyone contributes to all the processes – everyone does their bit of designing, selling, cleaning, organizing. Everyone is included, and everyone is contributing.
GT: Sounds like a great place to work!
PN: I certainly enjoy it! And the best part is, when people are focused on the same goal, there are no conflicts or grudges, and the alignment and collaboration become a genuine part of the process.
GT: And what is your main goal?
PN: Well, we are here because of our customer and our goal is to know and to serve our customer. We think of our customer as somebody, who is conscious, who values quality and versatility, but also wants to support local producers. They have a global career, but remain devoted to their neighborhood, their home. And we are constantly changing and evolving to be more than a fashion brand; our vision is to be a lifestyle brand that serves their customers in every aspect of their lives. So, customers, who are in our area, can come to the coffee shop and grab a cup of coffee on their way to work; they can buy a plant from our store to liven up their home. And of course they can find fashionable, high-quality, versatile pieces for their busy professional or social life. Our customers care about the quality, they also want to know that the products they buy are sustainably produced. And of course, they want a hassle-free shopping experience. So, this is our mission – to know them, to meet them where they are in life, to offer them solutions and experiences they would not find elsewhere.
GT: This is a very precise goal! I really like it.
PN: Thank you! We love our clients, and part of it is – we share a lot of values with them, we grow with them, and we also evolve with them. We are very careful not to lose sight of the new generation of businesswomen, who are surely very different and also very exciting. So, we are constantly examining the market to ensure we remain top of mind for our target audience.
GT: Talking about businesswomen, let me ask you – how does it feel to be one in Rwanda?
PN: It has been an amazing experience. Rwanda is a very unique place because here women entrepreneurs get a lot of support. There are policies and processes to support and incentivize women in business, and we definitely feel it. In full honesty, I think my experience in Rwanda is better than it would have been in North America. There are so many role models to learn from, programs to benefit from --- not too sound too corny, but the business space here feels like a sisterhood. I am definitely grateful for all the support our brand and me personally get here.
GT: I love it! Let me ask you the last question – What is the future for Haute Baso? Where are you taking the brand?
PN: Our vision is to stay small while living the big dream. We do not aspire to become one of those mega brands flooding the shelves of the stores worldwide. We want to be small and sustainable. But at the same time, we want to continue working towards our big dream of becoming a 100%-made-in-Africa lifestyle brand. We want to push the industry to find innovative ways for developing the end-to-end production in Africa, we also want to push ourselves to find organic ways to grow and work with more artisans, serve more clients, and be known as the brand promoting innovative products that celebrate Africa.
GT: And I am sure you are not too far away from achieving this dream! Thank you for your time!