Two young Rwandan eco-preneurs are showing the world that great design combined with a passion for finding environmentally friendly ways of dealing with the country’s non-biodegradable waste, can create something beautiful. Monica Umwari and Maria Mayanja have founded a young and funky eco-brand, Angaza, producing fashionable and highly desirable accessories made from upcycled waste products. They are showing Rwandans, and indeed the rest of the world, that entrepreneurs can make a positive difference to both the environment and to people’s lives.
Angaza is a Rwandan eco-brand, founded in 2012 by two innovative young women entrepreneurs, Monica Umwari and Maria Mayanja, who have a combined love of great design and a passion for safeguarding the environment. Their business inspiration came to the pair when they were both helping out in Monica’s family printing company and they noticed all the billboard advertising poster waste left over from the printing process. They realized that perhaps this waste could be re-used creatively in some way, and they started to brainstorm ideas for a new business venture that could utilize these materials, turning them into useful and beautiful products. Soon after, they spent 15,000 Rwandan franks (about $22 U.S. dollars) to apply for a business license, which was delivered one day later, making the pair official business partners. Their small savings were to be used to provide the start up capital. The name chosen for their new business venture, Angaza, is a Swahili word which means “to shed light” or “to illuminate”, and could not be more perfect for their eco-business vision. Today, Angaza aims to contribute to a brighter, more ecologically friendly Rwanda, where the design and manufacture of new products does not rely on depleting natural resources to make something new. The ethos of their business is based on transforming non-biodegradable waste, particularly discarded vinyl advertising banners and other plastic advertising materials, and jute rice bags, into unique and highly decorative accessories. To get the raw materials to make their products, Monica and Maria tapped into social-responsibility programmes at various big companies in Rwanda. A major bottling company was thrilled to give Angaza their old billboard advertising posters for free. “That’s like giving back to the community,” Monica said, especially when they can publicize that they are not only recycling, but are helping create jobs for former victims of the genocide.”
Through its eco-design approach, Angaza is providing innovative solutions to dealing with Kigali’s non-biodegradable waste such as the large advertising banners which are made of vinyl, a plastic which can take thousands of years before degrading. This material can also release harmful toxins when recycling is attempted. Monica and Maria believe in an integrated approach to waste management, environmental education and job creation is the way forward for Rwanda and see eco-preneurship as a key driver for change. Their approach strikes a cord with the country’s government, as one of its key priorities is the promotion and implementation of a Green Economy to boost sustainability in national development. Angaza is an excellent example of eco-preneurship in action and the company demonstrates to others that by upcycling waste, it is possible to reduce pollution, reduce the depletion of natural resources, teach more people about the environment, and create new, much needed job opportunities.
“Angaza wants to shine a light on newer concepts in Rwanda .We think of a future, a brighter one, where we no longer have to deplete natural resources to make something new.“
Today, the Angaza product range features beautifully handcrafted and one-of-a-kind personal accessories like wallets, tote bags, cross-body bags, laptop bags, novelty gifts, and promotional products, all using upcycled waste products and incorporating patch-work fabrics, recycled from Kitenge-batik off-cuts used by local tailors. The products are retailed through local shops, hotels and tourist venues, with customers really interested in hearing the Angaza story, so much so that descriptive story tags are now incorporated into all their wares. Monica says: “It’s a small investment with big payoff, as clients feel a stronger kinship with the brand and its mission.”
“We want to build a brand that Rwandans can own and that can inspire them to do more with the resources they already have.”
As a new business startup, Angaza has experienced some challenges during its first two years of operations and one of those has been for Monica and Maria to look at how they best utilize their skills and time in the business. When they first launched the company, like many young startups they tried to tackle every function in the company together, from design and operations through to sales and marketing. However, they soon discovered that this way of doing business wasn’t efficient or, indeed, harmonious. “We don’t have the same talents or skills,” said Monica. Today, it is Maria who has the most creative eye, and who is tasked with conceptalising new and innovative product designs, whereas Monica utilizes her creative marketing and communication skills to promote the business and build the brand. Both young women have big plans for Angaza going forward. They would like to hire more tailors slowly over time, and open a dedicated retail location, in addition to selling their products at coffee houses and souvenir shops where they can access the local tourism market, young trendy professionals, and corporates that look to support their eco-entrepreneurship cause. But the first priority is to ensure the financial stability of the company. Secondly, the focus of their efforts also needs to be on continuing creativity in their product development, combined with ensuring great customer care and efficient delivery. Thirdly, they are looking to realize their goals of expanding into the East African market, not to mention exploring European markets too in the future. The impending launch of their brand new website will also help their promotion to these key markets.
“By upcycling waste, we hope to reduce pollution, reduce the depletion of natural resources, teach more people about the environment, and create job opportunities”
Although Angaza has only been in business for the last two years, it has a number of achievements to its credit already. The company was awarded with $1000 from the Do School Seeds Awards, which was used to undertake new marketing activity. The company was also selected as having the best business plan in the BID network initiative investment battle, “Get in the Ring”. Angaza was amongst the 10 finalists competing for one place to attend the finals that were held in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Monica was invited to participate in an annual women empowerment program, ‘Peace through business’, which enabled her to get in-country business management training with other Rwandan business women, and an opportunity to travel to the USA for a 3 week mentorship programme. Other achievements in 2014 included the company getting its products in four major retail outlets, three of which were secured in the later quarter of the year. Angaza also participated in a number of major design industry events such as the Kigali Fashion Week Emerging Designers, Kigali-up, World Economic Development Forum’s Women Vendors Exhibition, the Rwanda Cultural Fashion Show, and the Glocal Convention which showcased the works of young Rwandan innovative startups that had the potential to go global.
Why LoA loves it….
Angaza is a real inspiration, not only to other aspirant Rwandan women entrepreneurs, but also to the world, demonstrating that individuals really can make a difference to solving some of the biggest socio-economic and environmental challenges facing Africa. Both Monica and Maria have identified a significant challenge, found an innovative solution, and are building a successful eco-business that is making a real difference. These are two young Lionesses of Africa to watch, both now and in the future. --- Melanie