Image courtesy UZURI K&Y
Glitter Trotter: Welcome Ysolde! You are a very busy lady, and I am happy you had a moment to talk to me today! How would you feel if we just dive in?
Ysolde Shimwe: Yes, please, fire away!
GT: Thank you! Well, today UZURI K&Y is a well-established brand with several stores in Rwanda and a presence abroad. But what I am really curious about is your first steps, first mistakes, and first wins.
YS: I see. So, let me start from the beginning. I actually really enjoy telling our story because it is really, truly beautiful.
GT: Can’t wait!
YS: It was a year of 2013. I was 19, and my business partner Kevine Kagirimpundu was 20. We were both still at the University studying Creative Design and Environmental Built. We bonded over one of the photography assignments for the class, and realized we had many common interests. But our most important connection was over the desire to be a part of solving pressing issues in our community. We did a lot of thinking and talking during that assignment and afterwards; we really wanted to make our mark on the Rwandan fashion market. Eventually, it all started coming together.
You see, in our community, where we are from, there are two major problems: old car tires and unemployment.
GT: I’ve never heard of this combination! Keep going!
YS: The thing about old tires is that they are just dumped in our communities. Some people burn them, which creates terrible air pollution. And if they are just left there, they might serve as a home for mosquitos, who would become a source of malaria and other diseases. The second problem – unemployment – was as big an issue for us as it was for the community. Kevine and I were both worried that we would have difficult time finding employment after graduation. We saw our community members struggling to earn income – and we wanted to try and solve that problem.
The more Kevine and I talked, the more we agreed that we should be the solution to both problems, not only for ourselves but also for the community. And that’s how we decided to make shoes.
GT: Oh! Just like that?
YS: It seemed like a good idea, even though we did not know much about making shoes. At the time, a lot of new designers were coming to the market – most of them making clothes. So, we did our research and settled on shoes. And the great thing about shoes was – we could use the old tires to make soles.
As I said, our knowledge about how to make shoes at the beginning was very theoretical. Luckily, we met Francois Ntacogora, who was a local shoemaker and had been in the industry for 30+ years. Today, he is our Senior shoemaker. When we met him, we pitched him the idea of making shoes from scratch; he believed in us and started training us on the basics of making shoes, while also working with us to make our first shoes. During that time, we would go to college from 8am to 2pm, then quickly grab lunch and go to Francois’ tiny workshop to make shoes. We would finish around 5-30pm or 6pm and then go sell our shoes to family members, friends, neighbors, etc.
GT: Sounds hectic!
YS: It was. But we were young, had the energy, and were very passionate about our business. We were prepared to knock on every single door to tell people about our venture and our products. Of course, some people would slam the doors in our faces; but there were people, who got genuinely interested and bought some shoes from us or supported us in other ways. This kept us going. Besides, as I said, we were very young and passionate about doing our business… Actually, scratch that. At the time, we were not really doing business just yet. But we were doing something, and that was important to us.
GT: How did you fund your business? Did you get a bank loan?
YS: No, we were not successful with that. This was one of the doors we could not open at the time. We started by saving up and investing our pocket money. And whenever we sold something, we would reinvest every single coin back into the business. We were really diligent and disciplined; and it paid off. When we just started, we were making about 3 pairs of shoes daily. Today, our fantastic team of 85 employees, in production operations, retail and management, are engaged in a shoe business that produces 3500 pairs a month, which are sold in three branded stores in Kigali and on our online platform.
GT: Congratulations – this is truly a beautiful and very inspiring success story.
YS: Thank you! Yes, we’ve come a long way!
Image courtesy UZURI K&Y
GT: And is Kevine still your business partner?
YS: Absolutely! Also, fun fact, Francois is still our senior technical advisor. He is now 67; and he rides his bicycle to and from work every day– 5 kilometers in the morning and 5 kilometers in the evening. Every day.
GT: Impressive! Some people retire at his age.
YS: Funny you should say that. I just recently talked to Francois about his retirement plans. You know what he said? He said, “I ride 10 kilometers on my bicycle every day – this is what keeps me healthy, this is what keeps me alive. And you want me to retire to do what? Sit at home till I die?” So, we had to put that conversation to bed, at least for now. But even beside Francois, Kevine and myself, I am happy to say that we managed to keep almost the entire team with whom we started.
GT: You said Francois was the first person, who truly believed in UZURI K&Y. What do you think he saw that others were not able to recognize at the time?
YS: I think he saw commitment and perseverance. When we met him, he was a regular shoemaker with a little workshop in town. So, one day, he had to completely close his shop. On the same day, he also lost his phone and was not able to replace. We did not know about that and came to his shop with our order only to find it closed. His phone was off. We did not know much about him at the time – only his name and the village where he stayed; and in Rwanda villages can be 90-120 houses spread across several kilometers. But I was determined to find him -- in fact, I had an important order for one of our returning customers, which to us was a big deal.
I took my materials, jumped on a motor bike, and went to that village. I was knocking on doors and asking people about a shoemaker named Francois. Can you picture this? A young girl in a random neighborhood trying to find a guy she only knows by name! Needless to say, I found him. When he opened the door, he was like: “What are you doing here?” And I said, “I am looking for you. I have an order.”
GT: Were you scared?
YS: I was! I was afraid I would not be able to find him that night; but I was also ready to return the next day and continue looking for him! And I believe that was the day when Francois truly believed in us and our vision.
GT: I love this story! Kudos to you for believing in yourself! Now I want to ask you about the tires. I still cannot get over your earlier statement that tires and unemployment were the two main problems in your neighborhood when you started your business. Why did you decide to focus on both problems – why not just create employment, and leave it at that?
YS: Because doing business for us was never about only the two of us, it was about making the life in our community a little better- and this is a big part of our values as a business. We are the makers of the change that we want to see around us. One other critical change that we are driving – aside from the waste management and recycling tires - is gender inclusiveness. It is really unfortunate that in the 21st century we are still struggling to provide sufficient opportunities for women to support themselves and their families; unemployment remains a much heavier burden on women than on men, and it is a global challenge. So as a business, we made it our mission to work with women, because they are just incredible – incredible shoemakers, incredible finance officers, incredible managers. As of today, 70% of the employees at UZURI K&Y are women.
Image courtesy UZURI K&Y
GT: Some people might say that by favoring women you might be discriminating against men. What would be your response to that?
YS: I would say, they are wrong. We are not taking opportunities away from men – we are adding opportunities that are more suitable for women. You see, for centuries the working environments have been shaped to fit men – their ways of working, their needs and lifestyles, etc. A working man has been a norm; a working woman – not so much. Yet, we believe that by flexing the system and adding economic opportunities specifically designed for women, we are enriching the labor market and improving the overall socio-economic structure of our society. So, we are not taking away opportunities, we are adding new ones.
GT: I really like this perspective! Thank you for the explanation. Talking about women and equality, how does it feel to be a woman entrepreneur in Rwanda?
YS: Well, I am just another fish in the ocean learning to swim. But in full seriousness, Rwanda is a great place for women entrepreneurs. The business environment is very friendly, and this is an achievement of the local elected officials, whose efforts are coordinated by the country government. I can honestly say that there are no such tools and opportunities that are available to men in business that are not available to me as a woman in business.
The best part about it, I feel that I personally have contributed to making this happen. I will give you an example. Seven years ago, as a member of the manufacturer’s association, I went to the Ministry of Commerce together with other manufacturers, to request tax exemption on the import of raw materials to Rwanda. Our main argument was that manufacturers import raw materials to the country to process them, add value, and create products that can be exported and earn income for the country. The change took time. But I am happy to tell you that I am now importing my raw materials tax-free – and I was a part of the people, who drove this change. This has been an empowering experience for me; and it also proved to me that the government is ready to work with entrepreneurs and is trying to be accommodating.
GT: There is also something to be said about the designers organizing themselves and going to the Ministry of Commerce together as a group to ask for very specific, very justifiable benefits. A lot of times, people just wait for somebody to come and help them. You took the matters in your own hands – and won. Congratulations. You must be very proud.
YS: I am! This is yet another contribution of my work to my community and my country.
GT: There is also something that you said about the imports. I gather, you import textiles for the shoes, but this is not it, right?
YS: You are right – about 90% of our raw materials come from outside Rwanda. And this is not because we do not want to be 100% #MadeInRwanda -- we do. But we live in a very small country, and we are a very young nation. We do not have factories making threads, or glue, or leather – but we need all those things to make a shoe. I do believe that some of the raw materials for the shoe industry can be produced in Rwanda in the near future, but we have a lot of catching up to do.
GT: Let’s now switch gears and talk about the shoes you make. Your products definitely stand out – the designs are unique and very recognizable. What inspires your creative process?
YS: Good question! There are many things from which we draw inspiration, but our customers have always been the biggest and most important one. They keep pushing us to not just do better, but to challenge ourselves, to stretch our skills and imagination.
As a Creative Director, I lead the design process from beginning to end – I oversee sketching, sampling, quality control… But at some point, our customers become our co-creators, for example, we have a group of loyal customers to whom we send samples before getting them into mass production; these customers test new shoes and give us feedback. But even after a new design goes into mass production, we continue listening – every comment is important, every opinion matters. This is how we grow our base of loyal customers and stay ahead of the game.
GT: They say, copying is the sincerest form of flattery. Do you have copycats in Rwanda?
YS: Oh, definitely! But you know what, those copycats are what keeps us on our toes – we never stop creating, we never stop challenging ourselves. Kevine and I both have a background in Creative Design –– we have no fear of experimenting with styles, materials, forms, etc. This is also what keep us unique.
Image courtesy UZURI K&Y
GT: And how do you work with Kevine? Do you divide the responsibilities or work on everything together?
YS: Both. We have made sure we divide tasks depending on personal interests and strengths: she runs the commercial side of the business and the training program, while I coordinate the creative side of the business and work closely with the shoe producers. We meet weekly to review the goals we jointly set for the company, we both work with our different teams and remain united when it comes to the vision, mission, and values of the business.
GT: Oh! You have a training program? For shoemakers?
YS: Yes, we do. Back when we just started the business, finding good shoemakers was a challenge. At the beginning, it was just the three of us – Kevine, Francois, and I – making the shoes. But as the company grew, we wanted to expand our team. There was almost no other shoemaker in the market, so we recruited less privileged people, trained them, and hired them to work for UZURI K&Y if their performance was promising. You remember that Francois, our senior shoemaker, originally trained Kevine and I all the important techniques– how to produce a unique shoe and bring it to life. So, we thought, who if not him would be the best person to help us train more people as we all work together to revive the shoes making industry?
We started with training candidates hired to work at UZURI K&Y. But after the first cohort graduated, we began receiving requests from new people asking for the training. More and more requests were coming in. And so, we tried to offer the training as a standalone program – not just for UZURI K&Y team but for anyone, who wanted to learn the shoemaking practice -- and the program picked up really quickly. Sometimes, we would announce a new intake for 50 people, and we would get 400 applications from young people. This just shows you how much they were willing to learn and work to be able for to improve their lives for the better.
GT: Do you only teach specific shoemaking techniques, or do you also help people learn the basics of entrepreneurship?
YS: Of course! You cannot thrive on shoemaking techniques alone! We also train people on the soft skills including time management, teamwork, saving -- and finally a few business skills, for example leadership skills, business plan writing, and product pricing. We want the trainees to not only join UZURI K&Y, but to also have a chance to succeed on their own, find jobs elsewhere, or even start their own businesses.
GT: What a great way to grow! You’ve clearly hit the nail on the head with the gap in the market!
YS: I believe so. As of today, we’ve trained 1,078 people. Some of them joined our team; some opened their own businesses. So far, 10 graduates have opened their own small businesses and have hired their cohort mates. And I believe this is another contribution to the shoemaking industry in Rwanda, which was once very prominent in the country but went dormant right after the 1994 Genocide.
But we are also looking beyond Rwanda. We keep receiving requests from other countries – Kenya, Gambia, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola, etc. – to provide training in shoemaking. So, we are now exploring ways to deliver the training digitally. Unemployment and underemployment are not unique to Rwanda, in other countries – in Africa and globally – people also struggle to find work. We think our program can be one of the pathways towards meaningful, stable employment – through certification and a job, or through self-employment. We want to give people an opportunity to learn and make a living.
GT: Typically, at the end of my interviews I ask designers what their plans for the future are. But in your case, do you even have plans that you have not realized yet? You seem to be doing so much already!
YS: We do! We have big plans! Our vision is to “brand” Africa as a source of sustainable footwear in the global market. To achieve this, UZURI K&Y has to be visible to consumers globally. Having an e-commerce presence helps, but it’s not enough. In the next 5 years, we want to be physically present in four additional African countries. We just started a collaboration with a European e-commerce platform, which will be a great entry way to the European market. We are looking for a similar American platform to launch our brand in the US. We are thinking big. But this does not mean that our values as a brand will change. We will always be committed to protecting and improving the environment and making sure that people in our community live a good life. This is not going to change, no matter how big our brand gets.
GT: This is very admirable! I wholeheartedly wish you the best of luck.
YS: Thank you.