Today I’m excited to be featuring one of Kigali’s most vibrant sewing cooperatives. Umutima (meaning “heart” in Kinyarwanda) was launched in 2013 and is a wonderful success story of women using textiles to grow a business and transform lives. I hope you enjoy getting to know this very special group of sewists as much as I did. If you’d like to buy any of the products featured, details can be found at the bottom of the post.
Friday 11 September 2015, Nyamirambo
Umutima is based at the Nyamirambo Women’s Centre (NWC), a small organisation providing education and training for local women. I arrive outside the Centre at lunchtime and pause outside awkwardly. I’ve arranged the visit in advance but I’m still anxious that I’m going to be in the way, holding up a busy working day. I step inside and anxiety melts away as I’m warmly greeted by Marie Aimee Umugeni, NWC president. Within minutes we’re sitting together on one of the shop sofas, chatting away about all things sewing-related. Marie Aimee is easy and fascinating to talk to: a motherly head of the NWC family and a keenly-focussed creative entrepreneur.
I ask her to tell me a bit about where it all started and she launches right in, a natural storyteller:
“NWC was offering sewing classes as part of its vocational training programme for women who didn’t have the opportunity to finish their education. Groups of women would come to the centre, learn how to use the sewing machine and then leave. Some managed to buy a machine and set up a business, but many could not. So in 2013 we decided to create a central hub, where women could come and work together on shared machines, and use their new skills.”
And so Umutima was born – initially a cooperative of six women, plus Monica Tabet, a development expert from Switzerland, who worked with them on design and branding. With several sewing cooperatives already in existence, the women brainstormed how they could use Kigali’s fabrics to create something new and fresh, different from what was being made elsewhere. Their first product was a baby blanket. Marie Aimee pulls out an example to show me:
“It’s quite simple,” she explains, “just a few pieces of fabric joined, but then hand-quilted with these very small rows of stitches. They took us a lot of practice in the beginning! We made enough blankets to participate in a Christmas bazaar that year, and we knew that was our moment. After that bazaar we would see if Umutima was going to fail, or if it could really be something. Lucky for us people loved them! They had never seen anything similar in Kigali. We came back and told the women – we have to go on! We have to make more! We sold them all!!”
Since then Umutima has grown in all kinds of ways. From six women there are now 28, aged between 18 and 56 and all paid a monthly wage. On the day I visit they are also supervising a young student, Jean-Paul, who is doing an internship as part of his vocational training.
Technology has advanced too. In the beginning the women all worked on manual, pedal-powered machines, but as the business grew, they were able to save up and buy several electric machines. With some additional donations they added four industrial-standard Jukis to the fleet, and even an overlocker, which Marie Aimee and I enthuse over together. “It’s a much better way to finish the seams” she nods, “especially on the clothes – much more professional”.
As we move around the sewing room, we stop to chat with some of the women working there. Bernadette shows me how all the sewing machines are still connected to the old pedal tables, and so can be operated manually when the power cuts out (as it often does). She laughs at my lack of pedal experience, “Electric machines are easier because pedalling takes more energy… but it’s not complicated, it’s like riding a bike!”.
The product line has developed too. Umutima now makes soft toys, children’s clothes and a wide range of homewares. “Paper patterns were an important step for us” Marie Aimee explains, “traditionally in Rwanda we sew using body measurements and everything is customised. But paper patterns allow us to make children’s clothes in a range of standard sizes, and to make soft toys that have the same shape each time.”
I ask where the design ideas come from and Marie Aimee says that Monica (the Swiss development expert) remains a crucial part of the Umutima family, especially in suggesting designs that might suit the western market. But all the women are encouraged to put forward their own designs too. “When someone suggests something and we add it to the collection, we name it after them.” She pulls an adorable toddler jumpsuit from the rack, “these are the Houssina pants!”
They also look for ways to take traditional crafts and reinvent them a little, by adding some Umutima personality. Basket-weaving, for example, is a well known Rwandan craft, and there are many cooperatives making beautiful baskets in different combinations of colours. Umutima work with a basket-weaving cooperative in Gatsata, but ask them to weave in just one natural colour. The baskets are then brought to Umutima and kitenge fabric is woven and wrapped into the structure. The result is simple, modern and totally unique.
Umutima’s professionalism and strong brand identity are noticeable throughout the store. Every item is neatly labelled with a branded pricetag and discreetly decorated with a small embroidered heart. Verena, a gifted hand-stitcher, shows us how she adds the embroidered hearts. Her favourite pieces to make are the table runners and cushion covers, both of which feature the hand quilting, which has also become something of an Umutima trademark.
As I come towards the end of my visit, we discuss what Umutima means for its women. Grace shares her thoughts: “I like coming here because I’m not alone. We work together and we share. It’s like a family.” Marie Aimee smiles and adds “It’s true. When someone has a baby it’s a huge thing, we all go together and take food. And the older women coach the younger ones. The hand quilting can be hard to learn, and the younger girls find it frustrating, they don’t have the patience. But the older women encourage them on and soon everybody can do it… “
So what does the future hold for Umutima? Marie Aimee shares their vision: “We would love to keep on growing” she says, “a bigger space, with more machines. We want to be able to include more women who never had a chance to finish their education. Here at Umutima they can make an income that can pay their rent, feed their families and send their children to school, and at the same time be part of a community. It is everything to them.”
With my lunchbreak undeniably over, I reluctantly say my goodbyes and make a quick purchase – a fabulous zebra-covered bag I just can’t leave behind. I step out of the centre into the sunshine, filled with the positive energy of this creative, enterprising group of women.
THANK YOU UMUTIMA!!
Feeling inspired to shop?? If you are based in or passing through Kigali, this is easy peasy. You can find Umutima’s products in their shop at Nyamirambo Women’s Centre and now also at Inzora rooftop Cafe.
For those further afield, you can browse Umutima’s catalogue on their webpage or check out all their newest creations on the NWC Facebook page. If you would like to ask questions or place an order you can email them – nwcoffice(at)gmail(dot)com.
And that’s about all folks! I know this was a loooooong post (thanks for sticking with) but hopefully it was an interesting one too. I’d like to do a few more features like this going forward, focussing on the role of fabric and textile crafts in different communities. It’s still early days so please feel free to leave feedback and suggestions in the comments below, I’d love to know what you think.