Rwandan jewellery and accessory brandbuilder, Teta Isibo, is passionate about bold design and harnessing the creative craftsmanship talent of local women artisans to create unique pieces that have an instantly recognisable Inzuki Design style and aesthetic.
This month, as part of our special Focus on Africa’s Women Jewellery Designers, we spoke to Teta Isibo in her Rwandan studio to find out more about this talented designer and her vision for building her proudly contemporary African jewellery and accessory lifestyle brand. Here is her story….
"Being an entrepreneur is not easy, and many people on the outside may think you lead a glamorous life, when in fact that is not the case at all. It is very hard work, but also very rewarding. It is still a great feeling when you see someone wearing something you have personally designed - that feeling never goes away."
Tell us about Inzuki Designs and what inspired you to start building your company and brand
Inzuki Designs is a Rwandan brand specialising in jewellery, as well as accessories and interior decor, all locally handmade in Rwanda. We work with lots of different artisans and as creative designer of the company, I design each of the pieces and then we work with all these incredible local women who have a range of different specialist craft skills to produce each piece. Inzuki Designs is a fusion of traditional craftsmanship and contemporary design. On a personal level, I started designing jewellery back in 2008 when I made my first pair of earrings, initially just as a hobby, but that led to me starting the business and designing full-time in January 2012.
However, let me go back back in time to 2006 when it all began. I returned home from university and was working in the mayor’s office as an urban planner, but on a personal level I was really interested in African design. However, I found that everything being sold in the local craft markets was all the same stuff they had been selling for years, all made for tourists and nothing contemporary or fresh. So, around 2008 whilst I was still working in the Mayor’s office, there was a special department dedicated to working with women who were learning how to weave traditional baskets. One day I asked one of the ladies there to make a pair of earrings I had designed, which she did and I absolutely loved them, as did my friends. As a result, all my friends started to ask me if they could also get a pair of earrings like them. I started to design, make and sell similar earrings to my friends, and their friends and family members. For around 2 years in my spare time, I designed and made the same style of earrings but in lots of different colour ways, and it led me to realise that my heart was really in the design space and I loved what I was doing. In fact, as a small child, I was constantly reinventing my mothers wardrobe and clothes, redesigning and making things - so, a love of design had been there from an early age. Yet, I didn’t at the time realise you could make a career of it, I thought it would always be just a hobby. As an African child, you are brought up by your parents to believe that you can be a doctor, a lawyer, a professional of some sort, I didn’t know I could consider being a fashion or accessory designer for example. As a result, I kept working in my urban planning day job, and designing part-time in my own personal time.
In late 2011, I realised that the design work was what I really wanted to do with my life - I would be sat in my urban planning meetings and instead of joining in the conversations and discussing the work at hand, I would be busy drawing jewellery designs in my notebook. I wasn't unhappy in my government job, I actually loved it, which was why it was hard to quit, but I realised it wasn't what I wanted to do with my life, and I chose to follow my passion instead. In Rwanda, they are always encouraging the youth and the women to acknowledge their human rights, and to fulfil their potential. As a result, there are lots of developmental and support programmes for women considering going into business, so that also encouraged me. My family and friends were also hugely supportive, in fact today some of them are entrepreneurs themselves, although at the time there were just one or two other women entrepreneurs in my social circle who were starting up in business. In general, there were not very many women entrepreneurs in Rwanda to act as role models to an up and coming young designer like me at the time, but today, it is very different and the number of young women entrepreneurs has really grown. Rwanda is now that that stage in its development where a lot of people have the confidence and the energy to start their own businesses, spurred on by the country’s growing economy and enthusiasm for startups to drive that economy further going forward.
"We have been working hard to create a design aesthetic that is uniquely Inzuki, yet which reflects the current trends for African design tradition and contemporary styling - we have definitely created our own unique style in the marketplace."
What do you think makes Inzuki Designs so unique in the world of jewellery and accessory design?
I think our jewellery pieces are very bold in their design and at Inzuki, we are not afraid to stand out in the crowd - our jewellery reflects that confidence. We do follow the trends but only to a certain extent, and the current love of African fusion between traditional and contemporary design, is very much what Inzuki is about from a design perspective. Right now, consumers around the world are really interested in African designs, but it is not easy to stand out from the crowd in the design space. However, in the three years since the company has been in existence, we have been working hard to create a design aesthetic that is uniquely Inzuki, yet which reflects the current trends for African design tradition and contemporary styling - we have definitely created our own unique style in the marketplace. In the early days, I designed a lot of what I liked personally and I was my own muse. However, when you startup your own business, you soon realise that not everyone shares the same taste as you and therefore you soon start to spend more time listening to what your customers want and like, and then designing collections and pieces that reflect a broader range of tastes and styles that will appeal to a larger audience. Through the years, we have been able to create our own unique Inzuki Designs ‘look and feel’. Today, if a Rwandan woman around my age living somewhere in the world saw a piece of my jewellery, I like to think she would be able to tell it is an Inzuki Designs creation. So, in that way, we have been able to build a brand that is unique and different, and instantly recognisable.
Tell us a little more about your team at Inzuki Designs.
I started out in the early days with just one lady who was weaving the earrings for me, but today, we have grown to the point where we work with eight different community groups of artisan women, and each group has anywhere between 8 and 40 women working within it. They are all cooperatives, so the women come and go in each of the groups, but Inzuki Designs works with all these cooperatives, some of them doing beading, some doing crocheting, others doing weaving, and one group even crafts pieces from cow-horn. As a company, we look to work with lots of specialist groups of women that work with a range of different materials and craft skills, and who share our company ethos and way of creating things. We train them all in terms of quality control and production consistency, and it takes quite a while for each of the groups to understand our design process. We have been working successfully with the same groups for the past three years, so they now understand Inzuki Designs well, and it creates good employment opportunities for the local community.
"As a company, we look to work with lots of specialist groups of women that work with a range of different materials and craft skills, and who share our company ethos and way of creating things."
Do you come from an entrepreneurial background?
My parents for most of my life had their own businesses - my father and mother used to run their own printing press, so I am sure that influenced my own entrepreneurial journey.
What are your future plans and aspirations for Inzuki Designs?
We are trying to build a global brand and we have received so much interest from outside Rwanda, especially since last year when we were featured on CNN African StartUp. That really boosted our profile and we received so many enquiries as a result of the programme. From all around the world, people were asking where and how they could buy our products. The exposure was not only great publicity for the business, but also great global market research for us, as we were able to evaluate which countries were most interested in our products and designs. Over the past three years, we have also been fortunate to take part in different global expos, so that has given us a great opportunity to learn more about key external markets. For example, in February we were in New York for the NY Now exhibition which is a really big international trade show, so that exposed us to some great new global buyers who were interested in our products. We are now actively working on fulfilling their orders, predominantly to small niche global boutiques and stores, but it is great global exposure for us. We are returning to the US shortly for the August Edition show, so basically we are looking to expand the business through wholesaling to different boutiques and stores around the world, and also through our online store. Our product range will eventually lead us to evolving into a fully fledged contemporary African lifestyle brand.
"Rwanda is now at that stage in its development where a lot of people have the confidence and the energy to start their own businesses, spurred on by the country’s growing economy and enthusiasm for startups to drive that economy further going forward."
What gives you the most satisfaction as a woman entrepreneur?
The ability to see my handiwork come to fruition. I may be walking through the streets of a city or town and I see a woman I don’t know personally wearing a piece of my jewellery, or I will be on the internet or on Facebook and I will see a picture of a complete stranger proudly wearing one of my pieces, and I will sit back and say to myself, I made that! So the satisfaction comes from seeing that original concept for Inzuki Designs that started out with that small pair of handmade earrings, grow into something so much bigger than I could ever have imagined. It gives you a purpose in life, doing something that you love. Being an entrepreneur is not easy, and many people on the outside may think you lead a glamorous life, when in fact that is not the case at all. It is very hard work, but also very rewarding. It is still a great feeling when you see someone wearing something you have personally designed - that feeling never goes away.
What advice would you give to other young aspirant women entrepreneurs out there who may be thinking of taking the leap and starting their own businesses?
You simply have to start - you may never be 100% ready at the outset, but just start. I remember at the beginning of my startup journey, I drew up a budget indicating how much money I thought I might need to start up my business. But if I had actually waited until I had that amount of money in my account, I might never have started. Instead I gave myself a deadline for starting my entrepreneurial journey and I stuck to it regardless. I decided to start small in the beginning and grow my business by taking baby steps. It is always essential to plan and do your homework before starting in business, but you have to start somewhere. The problem with so many aspirant women entrepreneurs in Africa is that they are perfectionists and they are afraid of failure or starting too small. So instead they keep endlessly planning and striving for perfection but never actually get around to starting. So the advice is to just start, with baby steps at first, and then grow organically from there - but, ultimately, just start.
Contact or follow Inzuki Designs
Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Why LoA loves it….
At LoA, we simply love Teta Isibo’s design philosophy and entrepreneurial approach to building her business and her brand. Her contemporary and dynamic interpretation of traditional African design in her jewellery and accessories is so refreshing and so appealing - a real breath of fresh air. Her contribution to providing commissioned work for women artisan groups in her local communities is also helping to build a strong entrepreneurial culture at a micro-level in her country. She is an inspiration to all those aspirant young African women brand-builders who are following in her footsteps. --- Melanie Hawken, Lionesses of Africa founder and editor-in-chief