Sunday, 3 October 2010

Spotlight on Mode Aderinokun


This week on i-Muse we feature a painting and a poem by an upcoming artist, Mode Aderinokun. Please check out www.modechronicles.blogspot.com for more of her work.

Loyal as Dog

I am the dog
Who wakes you up at seven
So you aren’t late for work

I am the dog
Who is saddened by your departure
Happy upon your arrival

I am the dog
Who lies with you
To warm you up on a cold night

I am that dog
You kick
When something bad has been done

I am that dog
You are repulsed by
Wishing you could get your money back from the pound

I am that dog
You don’t feed
Wondering why on earth I’m still alive

But I am the dog
Who wakes you up at seven
So you aren’t late for work

"The earliest I can remember writing is at the age of 7. However I had gained more experience in drawing, having started earlier. I would draw people but mainly cartoon characters, loved their big animated eyes and they were pretty much my world.

I hated reading as a kid, so I would write in order to read; when I questioned something I would also write about it. My words were the only words that could entertain me. I wrote primarily for myself. I still do. I've never been afraid to write because of a fear of peoples' perceptions. I feel you shouldn't write in order to be good per se; it is merely an arena to express one's self.

I stopped writing when I was around 13  because I felt it was a useless hobby. I still drew/painted though it was only during art class. I definitely wasn't one of the best but I enjoyed it and that was all that mattered. After graduating from Secondary School in England I studied 3D animation in San Francisco, California. While I was there, I started to write again. To people's amusement, the reason I begun writing again was because of a guy I was infatuated with in secondary school. At the time I had low self-esteem and believed the only way we could be together was through fiction. I wrote the story about him and I, got my friends and family to read it. The response was overwhelming and motivated me to take up writing again.

What inspired me to start painting again, having given it up at the age of 18, was the artwork I saw in High Fructose, Juxtapox and art history classes. Also, being in an artistic city gave exposure to amazing work - just walking down the street you would pass by a lot of art galleries and see jaw-dropping artwork.

I love the fact that I can paint and write especially because they allow me to express myself in two different ways. My writing style is darker and more emotional than my painting. With writing I challenge my ideals and philosophies of life whilst with painting I celebrate the beauty of life."



Mode Aderinokun

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Spotlight on e.quinox




This week on i-Muse we had the fantastic opportunity to interview e.quinox, a volunteer initiative set up in 2008 by undergraduates at Imperial College, London. The initiative has been successful in delivering renewable power to inhabitants of a remote village in Rwanda called Minazi.

With a population of 10 million people, Rwanda has the worst per capita electricity supply globally. Remote villages, like Minazi often have difficulty in obtaining electrical power: Located in the mountainous regions of the country, inhabitants often rely on kerosene, as fuel for cooking and lighting, a more expensive alternative to electricity. e.quinox’ initiative has resulted in a cheaper alternative source of power for villages and enough surplus energy to power other infrastructure projects.

Please show your support by visiting their website: www.e.quinox.org

Below are extracts from our interview with Daniel Choudhury, one of the volunteers:

What was the inspiration that led you to set up equinox?

e.quinox was set up in the summer of 2008 at Imperial College London, with a vision to bridge the gap between the classroom and the ‘real world’. Our project tackles one of the most challenging issues in the developing world - rural electrification; whilst providing students with hands on experience, furthering learning and research.

e.quinox endeavours to provide a complete solution to rural electrification, from the technical aspect to ensuring long-term viability using innovative business models.

Could you provide some background information on the leadership team?

e.quinox’ leadership team consists largely of undergraduates, ranging from students in their first year of undergraduate study to a few PhDs.

Whilst the Chairman is responsible for making overall decisions, each of the specialist teams - Technical Development, Information, Expedition, Finance and Business strategy are lead by a Head to manage their respective areas of responsibility.


Could you give an overview on the operational mechanics of delivering electricity to local communities and a case study on your pilot project Rwanda?

e.quinox’ solution can be broken down into two parts: generation of power using the centralised charging kiosk and distribution of power via portable Battery Boxes.

The latest version has a 5Ah gel-based lead acid battery, providing 25-30 hours of lighting with our supplied LED lamps. In addition, an in-built inverter allows for connection of small electrical appliances such as radios and mobile phone chargers, by conversion to 230V AC power.

The Energy Kiosk acts as a centralized charging station for the Battery Box. The business model and battery distribution is an innovation by itself, culminating in a breakeven prediction, making this solution wholly self-sustainable. Current calculations predict a breakeven duration of 5 years, and such studies are of particular interest for private/public investors.

Our pilot project in Minazi, Rwanda started off with electrifying 60 households. We’re learning more and more about the rural Rwandan market every step of the way. This year, we plan on expanding to two more areas, and expanding the current Minazi set up – to give a total of 360 households being served.

Do you have any involvement with local communities in terms of electricity delivery?

e.quinox members travel to the kiosk sites twice a year to upgrade current systems or set up new ones – these trips often involving scouting new locations for deployment of energy kiosks. We receive a lot of support from our local partners in Rwanda – the Belgian Technical Corporation (“BTC”) and the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (“KIST”).

How is equinox financed?

e.quinox is financed through grants received through its sponsors and partners or through awards. A large amount of this year’s finances were raised through the prizes awarded to e.quinox or its members – these include the JP Morgan Good Venture Award, the IEEE Change the World Student Humanitarian Supreme Award and the John Lever Award.

Interestingly, e.quinox’ business model has many similarities with what Dr Mohammed Yunus (founder of micro-credit) refers to as a “social business”.


What is your long-term vision for the organisation?

e.quinox’ vision is to develop and implement a rural electrification solution, overcoming the many obstacles that come in its way. The project is not meant to “be charitable”, but to help rural communities “help themselves”.

We want our projects to inspire others – students, organisations or entrepreneurs – to take the challenge of solving such a major issue, at the same time providing students with invaluable, real-world experience in Engineering, Socioeconomics, Finance, Marketing and the various other aspects involved in our project.

China - Africa's Friend or Foe?


China’s hunger for natural resources in Africa is reminiscent of the Scramble for Africa by European powers during the New Imperialism period between the 1880s and World War 1 in 1914.

Arguably, China is Africa’s friend, as a potential source of Foreign Direct Investment (“FDI”) and engine of growth: As the world’s fastest growing economy, China’s increasing demand for resources is a key feature of the global landscape, and is predicted to persist in the future. Recent deals include construction of roads, railways and buildings from Lesotho to Cairo, investments in the oil sector in Nigeria, and the coal sector in Mozambique. Chinese economic activity is expected to have a positive externality on the wider African economy, due to much needed improvements in infrastructure.

Recent literature, however, have questioned China’s true incentive for collaborating with Africa, often espousing views that China’s business practices are often to Africa’s detriment. The main concern is that the increasing exploitation of natural resources will give rise to “Dutch Disease”. This supposes that an increase in profits from natural resources will cause de-industralisation, as the domestic exchange rate appreciates. Consequently, making the manufacturing sector less price competitive.

True, China assists in financing infrastructure projects in resource rich countries, often however, criticism also surrounds the transparency in loan contraction processes. Loan contracts are often made at the highest political level, and due to lack of transparency, the agreements are not available to parliament, civil society or media, as in Zambia.

Zambia is an example of an undiversified economy with a heavy dependence on commodity exports. Following the oil crisis in 1973, Zambia’s economy was devastated by a global decline in commodity prices, and borrowed its way through the crisis, with peak debts of $7 billion. Cancellation of up to $6.6 billion as well as a demand for copper particularly by the Chinese spurred the economy. Despite this, there has been an increasing prevalence in anti-Chinese sentiments amongst Zambians. Concerns surround the lack of transparency in loan contraction processes, meaning that political leaders can exploit capital inflows with little accountability.

Our political leaders ought to take a more active role in monitoring FDI, in order to ensure that the wealth generated “trickles down” to benefit everyday Africans. Stringent policies need to be implemented to ensure that FDI is only encouraged in sectors of the economy requiring investments, to prevent crowding out of local African producers. Taking a lesson from China’s “Provisions for Guiding Foreign Investment and the Industrial Catalogue for Foreign Investment”, these set out activities that are prohibited by foreign investors, and also only encourages activities that are “in accordance with the development and needs of the national economy”.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Fela!: From Broadway to the Olivier Theater in London



While the West End has been home to the commercial runs of many successful Broadway musicals, the nonprofit National Theater in London announced a rare undertaking for its stages: a production of the new Broadway musical 'Fela!'. The show - A heart-pounding, energetic mash-up of African dance, singing and live music conceived by Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis, the musical chronicles the life and times of the 20th century music pioneer Fela Kuti, exploring his controversial life as artist, political activist and revolutionary musicial and the origins of his signature Afrobeat style: a blend of West African rhythms, Funk and Jazz mixed with thought-provoking political messages that challenged the corrupt Nigerian dictatorship of the 1970s.

As a British-Nigerian with a childhood in Nigeria, like most, I grew up with an intimate expsoure to Fela and his legacy. I was doubtful of the Broadway caricaturization, expecting something in the realms of the Lion King, commercialized beyond the point of recognition. My initial impressions were subsumed by the raucous of the opening scene. Fela led the crowd with his hips making his entrance through the aisles amid a human locomotive of shoulder-rolling men, identifying that pelvic motion as “nyansh,” what you hear — and feel — in the bass. The audience was blown away as the band kicked in and the 20-odd members of the cast and crew took the stage, giving themselves over to spontaneous dance. The audience was welcomed into the extravagant, decadent and rebellious world of Afrobeat legend, with “Nyansh" - Afrobeat’s foundation, over which are layered elements explained in a number called “B.I.D. (Breaking It Down),” tracing the musical education of Fela from his youth in Lagos (where highlife jazz dominated) to his student days in London (where he listened to John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra).

Mr. Kuti, who died of AIDS in 1997 at 58, was the king of Afrobeat, a musky hybrid of African rhythms and American jazz and funk, and his songs — 15, 20, 40 minutes long — have coaxed many feet to the dance floor. Defiant and irreverent in politics, he also used his music and fame to denounce corruption and ridicule those he called the world’s “vagabonds in power.” That he was repeatedly jailed and beaten for his opposition only quickened his route to becoming a modern African folk hero. The onset of the interval, a respite from the music revived my initial scepticism. I scanned the crowd now awakened, electrified by the distraction of the lights, buzzing from the scantily clad dancers, risquee scenes and taboo punch lines, but no real interest in the message which had sombered me. There were no Africans or world-music aficionados, the audience knew little about Fela and the show was doing little to educate them, neither the show nor the cast, nor the venue. It suddenly felt like the symbol of an era had been hijacked, proccessed and exported to a mass audience.

As the curtains were raised for the second Act, I began to look beyond the flailing dancers and drumer's beats, beyond the saxophone faking and yeah-yeah'ing of the crowd, the booty shaking and stereotypcially bright colours. This was not the celebration of a legacy of a remarkable and controversial man who used 'music as [his] weapon'. The audience had no notion of the symbolism of his life - a life dedicated to ideals, values and passion for common humantity, and the artistic spontaneity and fusion of Afrobeat - did not really translate at all. If anything it reinforced the steretoype that West African dance is about empty (or at best, sensual) bootyshaking rather than teaching the concept of a body flowing to the beat of a drum and at the urging of spirits and ancestors and tradition. The show ended with all the dancers literally stacking coffins on the stage to symbolize their willingness to give up lives for promises of truth and freedom - in the same vein of Dr. King and words of Malcom X and Ghandi.

The leaders of the National said in interviews that they had decided to pursue 'Fela!' after seeing the Broadway prodcution because the music and choreography of the show - about the Afrobeat star, featuring dancers in the aisles of a theater decorated like a Nigerian nightclub - was unlike anything now in London. My personal recommendation is that you see this production, if not for the story, then for the performances, vibrant music and the fact that it is a spectacle that may expand your worldview. Try not to lose sight of the fact that Fela sought to be a man of revolution. This is not The Lion King. It is a story about one man's freedom struggle, in a war that still rages on the African continent.

The London production, to be staged at the National Theatre, will begin previews on November 6, 2010 with an opening night on November 16. It will be booking initially until December 4th with an option to extend.


i-Muse Educates

Fela Kuti Wikipedia 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fela_Kuti

Fela Kuti's Nigeria   
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/6924454.stm

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Gulf Spill - CSR Lessons For African Leaders



The whole world of recent has been captivated by desperate attempts to control BP's leaking Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest oil spill in the U.S. history. The accident on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20 was a tragedy for the 11 men who lost their lives and created a huge anger and anxiety along the Gulf coast about its potential impact on the environment and local communities. A cataclysmic disaster on this scale calls for more than just wrist slapping, it calls for something more severe, but more interestingly it opens up the debate - were the BP spill not off the gulf of Mexico but in the Niger Delta region what would have been the response? Would British Petroleum be subjected to the same global backlash or would the victims merely be considered as collateral damage with a quick reversion to business as usual.


Ever read the Constant Gardener by le Carre? If you have, then you are probably familiar with the conspiracy theories of multinationals exploiting developing nations, especially African nations. However, these are not merely conspiracy theories - appalling cases of exploitation and human rights violation still occur. Who exactly is to blame for this atrocity? Is it the greedy powers that be at said corporations? Or is it in fact, leaders of said exploited nations? I personally believe it is the latter.

The emergence of free will journalists and human rights activists mean that corporate baddies are more likely to be called to account for their bad behaviour.  The principal risk for companies is reputation and their fundamental objective is to rake in the money. They do not necessarily practise CSR because the fat cats have had an epiphany and a re-scrambling of moral compass. However, if their reputation seems to be at risk, out comes the nun habit, rosary and the whole CSR-spiel. They cannot afford the loss of investor confidence, restricted access to capital and fines that come with a poor reputation. At the very least, these companies should be willing to accept responsibility for the environmental and social impact of their actions. Union Carbide’s chemical gas plant leak in 1984 killed at least 15,000 people and sickened half a million in the Indian city of Bhopal. 26 years on, eight men were found guilty of negligence and have been sentenced to a mere 2 years in prison. 2 years, 15,000 killed, 2 years, 500,000 taken ill, 2 years, thousands of lives/livelihood destroyed... It just doesn’t weigh up.

What is to be said for the leaders of these developing nations? What exactly are they doing while their people and resources are being exploited? For the most part, they are laughing straight to the bank. As erstwhile days when tribal leaders traded lives for a bottle of rum or a mirror, leaders of today trade their people for some stacks of numerically embossed paper. It’s pathetic and it needs to change. Corruption, venality and embezzlement are rife. Rather than invest funds in retaining the intelligent minds of indigenes, leaders would rather buy a house in the swankiest part of town.

As Nigeria is close to home for me, let’s take a closer look at her experiences with CSR and exploitation. Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa, and the fifth largest in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (“OPEC”). Oil makes up over 80% of government revenues and over 40% of the GDP. The Nigerian stock market is the second largest in Africa. 98% of all revenues from exports come from petroleum. Voices of protest point out that the world has overlooked the scale of the environmental impact of oil exploration in the region. Activist Ben Amunwa, of the London-based oil watch group Platform, said: "Deepwater Horizon may have exceed Exxon Valdez, but within a few years in Nigeria offshore spills from four locations dwarfed the scale of the Exxon Valdez disaster many times over. Estimates put spill volumes in the Niger delta among the worst on the planet, but they do not include the crude oil from waste water and gas flares." 

As it stands, no organization has emerged with cohesion and vigour since the martyrdom of Ken Saro-Wiwa at the vanguard of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) in the early 1990s, yet protests aimed at oil production take place on a regular basis. Some local communities remain hotbeds of sedition; protesting  the exploitation of what they see as “their” oil—though the national constitution states that all oil is owned by the federal government—without benefit to them or compensation for the damage done to their land and livelihoods. Communities demand compensation for pillaging of their land, environmental damage or employment in oil industry or development projects for their villages; they demand for a portion of the revenue derived from oil to be spent in the region in which it came, and rightly so! On some occasions there has been property damage, theft and incidences of intimidation of oil company staff. Sabotage of oil pipelines and hostage taking is on the rise, though its extent is disputed between the companies and the communities.  In my opinion, their anger is justifiable. However, many of these protests are never reported, even in the Nigerian national press - only when there is a threat to oil production are headlines guaranteed. 

Viewers apparently suffered from post-Avatar depression after watching James Cameron’s critically acclaimed blockbuster; humans felt a profound contempt for the treatment of the indigenous Na’vi tribe of Pandora, (whose land was plundered for the rare Unobtanium which could save planet Earth from its energy crisis). As human beings, isn’t it poignant that we are unable to extend these feelings to the plight of our own race? In the religion of my people, Odinani, there is a saying that lies at the foundation of the beliefs:
"Egbe bere ugo bere. Nke si ibe ya ebene gosi ya ebe o ga-ebe." 

Let the eagle perch, let the hawk perch, whichever says the other shall not perch, may it show the other where to perch. 

Simply put, live and let live. This is to say that no one has the God-given right to deny another an anchor on this earth. 

The response to the spill in the United States should serve as a stiff reminder as to how far spill management across Africa has drifted from standards across the world. They have been accepted due to the lack of laws and enforcement measures within the existing political regimes. The Gulf spill should force our Leaders to reflect on and raise the standards imposed on foreign companies operating in our backyard, in order to preserve the basic rights of our people and communities.


Shell Foundation: Backing Middle Africa



An avid spectator of the evolution of Private Equity as an asset class across the African continent, the invitation to attend the inaugural PE Africa Seminar was well received. The event was oversubscribed, the atmosphere electric. On the panel, sat the usual suspects: investment professionals from DPI, MediCapital, Clifford Chance and unexpectedly The Shell Foundation - the social investment initiative of the oil major, Royal Dutsch Shell, launched in 1997 to promote sustainable development. Not oft is Shell, the international magnate associated with social entrepreneurship especially given its sour history with the African Continent. The initial skepticism was overwhelming, merely an attempt by Shell to distract us from it's past by portraying itself as a model of corporate social responsibility. However by the end of Chris West's (Director of the Shell Foundation) presentation it was clear that this initiative had to be shared with i-Muse followers.

“The Shell Foundation and GroFin act as venture capitalists in the development space. The problem is not a shortage of entrepreneurs in Africa, it has been to give these people the necessary investment and support to help their business grow. We provide a return on investment by helping SMEs to succeed using an enterprise-based approach.” 
(Chris West, Director of The Shell Foundation)

The Challenge – The Missing Middle
In OECD countries small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and microenterprises account for over 95% of firms, 60-70% of employment, 55% of GDP and they generate the lion share of new jobs. This sector is even more crucial in developing countries, nonetheless accounts for less than 10% of GDP in Africa. The under-funding of this engine of economic growth and job creation is a key impediment, with the lack of business skills, collateral and access to finance frustrating the start-up and growth enterprises in the region. The phenomenon is now termed the ‘missing middle’.


The Solution – Sustainable Solution To The ‘Missing Middle’
Traditionally, plugging the so-called ‘missing middle’ – the gap in financing that exists between micro-finance and commercial financing because local banks see SMEs as too risky an investment - has been the domain of development agencies and charities. But these efforts have failed to generate any large scale impact. The ‘Growth Finance’ sector has thus arisen to address the challenge of finding financially viable ways to solve this market inefficiency – so that entrepreneurs can grow their businesses and create sustainable employment.

What makes growth finance different from either microfinance or private equity is that it integrates the provision of vital business skills assistance with the provision of risk capital and assesses the viability of a business, rather than its collateral or track record. This is the recipe which has enabled African SMEs to grow in a sustainable manner and generate local wealth.

The Model - GroFin Model Explained
The Shell Foundation in partnership with GroFin - a specialist business developer and financier - have pioneered a new business model specifically designed to service the Growth Finance sectors, mobilizing the largest Growth Finance Fund in the world to date, and pioneering a viable and sustainable way to plug the ‘missing middle’. The Economist journalist Matthew Bishop summarized it in the following way: ‘ … as Muhammed Yunus and Grameen bank did by turning microfinance into an asset class, the Shell (Foundation) may have kicked off a multibillion dollar investment in ending poverty.’

The GroFin Africa Fund (GAF) provides vital business skills assistance and risk capital – on a competitive investment basis – to SMEs underserved by traditional capital sources investing between $100,000 and $1 million in SMEs operating in various sectors of the African economy - from manufacturing to retail and services. The capital is attained through the use of self liquidating instruments (loan with incentive fee) sourced from a range of development banks around the world, thus providing fair risk reward pricing (equity type returns with no exit constraints).

Through the integrated provision of business development assistance and appropriate finance to viable SMEs, GroFin has established locally managed operations in South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ghana, Rwanda and Nigeria. On the ground, GroFin teams of business development and investment professionals actively work with local entrepreneurs to help them establish sustainable businesses and in so doing, realise both attractive financial returns for investors and a suite of social returns, including job creation.

GroFin’s target net returns to investors are 5 to 10% net after costs and write-offs to investors in USD terms. Performance to date is in line with modelling with gross portfolio returns between 15 and 20% in the different funds. The average IRR achieved on the first 14 exits is 25% proving wrong the belief that risk finance at this level is not commercially sustainable.

The Impact
The Foundation’s support has enabled GroFin to leverage over US$260 million to make risk finance and business development assistance available to Africa’s entrepreneurs making GroFin the biggest growth finance fund manager in Africa.
  • $17 million has been committed to 50 businesses across Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa through in-country investment teams
  • Close to 200 portfolio companies, 28% of them startups
  • Sustainability of companies is 90%+
  • Cost per job created and maintained is low - $13,000
These financed businesses create significant value in the market place.
  • Each transaction creates on average 15 new jobs
  • GroFin portfolio companies employ a total of 4112 personnel with a further 64,500 beneficiaries benefitting directly from the $52 million invested.
  • Write off rate is less than 5% significantly better than the market average and a true indication of the value of the structured finance and the ongoing business development assistance. 
  • These businesses manufacture and deliver a wide range of goods and services and are all formal businesses that contribute significantly to the local economy.
The Future – ‘Vision 2020’ Strategy
On the basis of GroFin’s record of growth, and the experience of micro finance and private equity before it, Jurie Willemse, GroFin’s chief executive, expects this to be a multi-billion dollar finance industry by 2020, aiming to have assets under management worth $300-400m by 2013 and to be a $1bn company in its own right by 2020. 

The Conclusion
Microfinance has succeeded in shifting the development debate away from aid and towards bottom-up, market-based solutions to poverty. But because microfinance mostly deals with the informal sector it will never provide the engine for economic growth or job creation that will permanently lift millions out of poverty. For this to happen, growth finance needs to be recognized as an important new asset class – potentially worth billions of dollars – and receive support from all those with a long-term interest in filling the missing middle.

It has always been my belief that market incentives are critical if not key in providing sustainable solutions to the most pressing social and global challenges modern day economy faces. Aid-based approach to development runs counter to the enterprise ethos needed for dynamic business growth. If Africa and the developing world are to be transformed it will be through economic independence not dependency, via bottom-up enterprise not top-down handouts. The GAFs are investment vehicles offering a means for commercial investors to help unleash grass-roots entrepreneurialism in Africa and promote the spirit of enterprise across the Continent. The Challenge is monumental but the solution elegant in its simplicity.




“The Africa enterprise sector represents an exceptional investment and development opportunity at this time and has illustrated resilience through the economic crises.”
(Willemse, Managing Director of GroFin)


i-Muse thanks Chris West Director of the Shell Foundation and Deputy Director Clare Woodcraft for their support and contributions.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Spotlight on mille collines




This week on i-Muse we had the fantastic opportunity to interview an upcoming fashion brand, mille collines based in Rwanda. The brand, described as a ‘blend between trend and tradition’ was birthed a year ago, by two innovative Catalan designers, who decided to relocate to Kigali, Rwanda.

European cuts and silhouettes with hints of African influences, the brand is on the road to success having evolved from a small workshop to an international brand with retail outlets in Barcelona and Kigali; and soon to open retail outlets in Nairobi and an online retail store. Please check out their collection and let i-Muse know your views: http://www.millecollines.es/

Below are extracts from our interview with Inés Cuatrecasas, one of 2 founders of the company:

Can you provide a brief overview of the company?
The brand mille collines was born in Rwanda in the winter of 2007 when my partner Marc and I decided to pilot our first collection for Fall-Winter 2008 in a workshop located in the capital, Kigali. From there, we coordinated the work of several craftsmen and female groups located around the country; we adapted traditional techniques to European designs with an African essence.

After 2 years of research and product testing, the company was founded and is now over a year old. We started with 3 employees; today we have 30 employees and are still growing.

What is the inspiration that lead you to Africa and specifically Rwanda?

Africa is inspiration.

Apart from the intangible feelings that made us fall in love with the Continent, this place drags you back to the essence of creation.  Just like in the 50’s in Europe, where you were part and witness of every stage of the process when creating a product. As designers, it is a privilege.

Back in 2005 in Rwanda, we met an extraordinary woman, Antoinette. She was a master cut in her own workshop and had a qualified team of tailors. Together, we created the first collection and identified the different cooperatives that would participate in the process. She inspired us to start and since then we have never stopped.

How much involvement/collaboration is there with the local communities?
They are an essential part of the process and the product. They are one of our added values. Apart from the 30 employees that are part of the Atelier team in Kigali, numerous cooperatives collaborate with our brand adapting handcraft to complete our products.
  
We like to explain to the communities what the market is about, the challenges and the conditions that we face, all key in building a trustworthy relationship. Being part of a process together and valuing their quality work has improved their self-esteem and life standards.

Did you have any preconceptions about doing business in Africa?
Back then, we were very young and idealistic but we had read and heard people talk about Africa as a very unstable environment for business. Commonly tagged with political instability, corruption, insecurity, bad supplies etc. it has pulled back many potential investors of betting for this Continent. Through our experiences, many of these preconceptions have been proved wrong or unfairly amplified.

You do face difficult situations. As in every new environment you have to watch closely and learn fast if you want to survive.

We’ve learned to be very cautious and purist. Learned to be intuitive and move forward even though many things might be lacking. This environment has enhanced our creativity and kept us constantly active, not to lose tempo

What key challenges do you face in your business?
Transport is for us one of the main challenges.  In a landlocked country our transport prices are relatively high and we lose competitiveness as a result.  In the future however, there are plans to build a railway that will connect Tanzania with Rwanda. That would lower the costs of import/export and place Rwanda as a potential candidate for a logistics center between East and Central Africa.

We have never faced corruption in Rwanda. The country is leading a strong campaign against it and it has proved to be very effective.

Who is your target market?
mille collines' target is a woman with a strong personality, looking to differentiate herself through fashionable and ethical garments. She plays the role of an opinion leader for her surrounding social environment. By extension mille collines’ buyers can also be followers of this opinion leader.

Are you seeing increasing competition? If so, by whom?
Africa has strong potential as a growing market. Rwanda is still at an early stage so we are one of the very few brands that produce and sell high quality fashion goods that marry Western and African influences within the local market. Within East Africa (for example in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) the fashion industry is developing fast, with unique fashion brands emerging daily.

In Nairobi, Kenya, brands like Penny Winter are also producing high quality fashion goods with an African essence. Though, they are still not numerous.
We are very excited to see competition increase (laughs).

What are your long-term goals/ambitions in terms of growth and expansion?
We have an ambitious plan for mille collines (laughs).
We have a shop in Kigali and we are opening a new one in Nairobi in a couple of weeks. We are also exporting our products to multi-brand shops in Europe. Over the next 2 years, we want to keep expanding in East Africa with our own shops, aiming to have opened 5 stores. We will also focus in increasing the number of retail shops and sales volume across Europe and USA. Eventually we want to open our own stores there too.

Any comments on the future outlook of the business?

"Stay hungry; stay foolish" (Steve Jobs)