When you think about fashion, do you think about Africa? You should. Not only has the New York Times recognized that much more money gets spent in Africa on luxury goods than most people think, but focusing on fashion has become one more way for Africans to create prosperity.
Take Rwanda, the country I call home, as an example. Rwanda is land-locked in central Africa - making trade difficult and expensive - with very poor rural and urban populations. Nonetheless, even here in Rwanda, the fashion business is beginning to grow. With the high costs of transport, it makes sense that little Rwanda would enter the fashion segment where products tend to be limited run and relatively lightweight.
KEZA (www.keza.com), whose name means "beautiful" in Kinyarwanda, is a fashion business born in Rwanda that is making headlines -- and making a profit. With jewelry sold all over Europe and in the US, KEZA has found a way to achieve successful business development using a model of social entrepreneurship, lifting all boats in the process. The founders' philosophy was simple: People in rich countries put a great deal of time and energy into their appearance, making the fashion industry robust and resilient, even in tough economic times. In the developing world, there are millions of entrepreneurs searching for viable businesses that will sustain their families. KEZA's aim has been to unite those two worlds. To that end, four years ago the founders of KEZA began with the idea of building businesses in Africa for poor women. They had three major goals: 1. To create locally owned businesses that provided women with an income, and therefore with dignity; 2. To create high-quality products and a preferred brand; 3. To do it all so well that it attracted outside investors to do even more business in Africa.
To prove their business model would work, KEZA first had to get over some large hurdles, including training their manufacturing cooperatives in design, quality control, product consistency, and accounting. In the end, KEZA helped the cooperatives get on their feet and connected them to an international market for their products. KEZA has a team of international fashion experts that assist in product design and development and, more importantly, KEZA continues to train poor Rwandan women in business development and growth. This helps them to generate salaries of $200-$300 per month with full benefits. This is a massive boon to people who are used to earning about $17 per month during the best of times.
KEZA is putting a face on the challenges and opportunities for social entrepreneurship. Years of on-the-ground investment were required to get local cooperatives to the point where they could produce export-quality wares. Volunteers, seed capital, and sweat fueled that initial period of KEZA's growth. Though the barriers were enormous, the leadership of the local cooperatives combined with KEZA's connections to markets and savvy marketing skills forged a relationship that today is proving profitable for all parties. At the end of the day, it isn't goodwill or charity that will sustain these Rwandan women. It's profit.