A passion for handcrafted accessories, combined with a sense of pride for Made in Rwanda products, inspired Dokmai Rwanda founder, Bernadette Umunyana, to create a company and a brand that would celebrate the skills and raw materials of Rwanda. Today, her company is producing a range of high quality leather fashion accessories that are proudly made and designed in Rwanda, and custom tailored to meet the needs of the brand’s discerning customers.
LoA spoke to Bernadette Umunyana about building a proudly Rwandan brand and her aspirations for the future.
What does your company do?
Dokmai Rwanda is a private limited company in Kigali founded in 2014 by Bernadette Umunyana, together with two family members (minority shareholders), producing fashion accessories for women and men including handbags, laptop bags, satchels, belts, evening clutches, purses and cosmetic bags. The main raw material is genuine leather in various colors following the international fashion trends, as well as leather blended with cotton fabric (Kitenge, wax). Our products are of high quality appropriate for everyday use but also for special occasions. Dokmai Rwanda adheres to the principles of Fair Trade and focuses on expanding its production through in-house trained young people of both sexes. The company’s mission is to strengthen the competitiveness of leather fashion products Made in Rwanda able to substitute for imported products and fulfilling the expectations of customers beyond the Rwandan borders.
"Dokmai Rwanda’s mission is to strengthen the competitiveness of leather fashion products that are Made in Rwanda, able to substitute for imported products and fulfilling the expectations of customers beyond the Rwandan borders."
What inspired you to start your company?
Dokmai Rwanda is, in fact, the result of 7 years of Fair Trade handicraft activities in thePDR of Laos focusing on hand woven and naturally dyed traditional and fashion silk products which I sold online to customers in Europe, USA and Australia. In 2014, I left South East Asia as my husband had been assigned to a new duty station in East Africa and I decided to restart my activities. After a survey of market opportunities I decided that the leather fashion sector was most promising and I convinced my family to support me in founding my company .
Why should anyone use your service or product?
In terms of imported products or budget products from China in the marketplace, neither of these products match the colorful African fashion style as worn by many women. Dokmai Rwanda tries to blend the colourful African joy of life into its products. For many of our foreign customers our products are a long-lasting souvenir of a journey to the Land of 1000 Hills. Being a small team we are able to custom tailor our products. Customers can chose from our large range of coloured leather and fabrics to create their own personal blend and we are able to produce the finished item within a short timeframe, allowing even travelers to the country to get their special product in time.
"Dokmai Rwanda adheres to the principles of Fair Trade and focuses on expanding its production through in-house trained young people of both sexes."
Tell us a little about your team
Currently, Dokmai Rwanda employs 9 (4 females) members of staff in the production team, as well as 1 sales lady. Three of my male members of staff are already experienced leather workers, now in charge of leading the production process, but also training my new workers in best practice. One of my female trainees has already reached the competence level required of a senior leather worker; the other girls will soon follow. All of my workers are encouraged to come up with their own ideas on new products and new designs, or on how to improve the quality of the products.
Share a little about your entrepreneurial journey. And, do you come from an entrepreneurial background?
I am a trained Elementary school teacher, but since an early age I have loved creative activities in the arts and design. Thanks to my husband’s activities as a consultant, I have had the opportunity to visit many countries from North Africa, West Africa to South East Asia. In Burkina Faso, I learned how to dye batiks and I have participated in fashion showspresenting dresses and shirts made from my own batik designs. In the PDR of Laos, Ilearned specialist weaving techniques and the dying of silk, and in fact also how to sell these products online. My company was recognized as a Fair Trade business and I also focused on obtaining the EU Ecolabel for environmental conformity of my naturally dyed products. I participated in international trade fairs in Europe, China and Thailand. I followed courses in Malaysia on silk screen dying to use these techniques on my Laotian silk fabric. With regard to my entrepreneurial skills, I have attended a number of specialist training courses - in addition I get advice and support from my husband who has an MBA, and my son, a student in international commerce.
"After a survey of market opportunities I decided that the leather fashion sector was most promising and I convinced my family to support me in founding my company."
What are your future plans and aspirations for your company?
In order to overcome seasonal fluctuation in sales, I am focusing again on exporting my products, in particular to the countries and markets where an appreciation for Fair Trade and ethnic handicrafts seems to be better. I know that I am not able to compete in mass production with some manufacturers. Therefore, I will try to maintain my high quality in finding a niche market. I also offer my labour capacities to other local manufacturers who have been lucky enough to win export contracts but who find it difficult to increase their production from one day to another, as the market for skilled labour is small and it takes time to train workers.
What gives you the most satisfaction being an entrepreneur?
I draw my own satisfaction as an entrepreneur from the satisfaction of my customers. If a customer comes back to buy a second and third item from our product range, I know that we (my team and I) have achieved our goals. I am also satisfied to contribute, as little as it is, to the economic rise of Rwanda in paying my dues to the government and in ensuring today the livelihood of 10 Rwandan families.
"Dokmai Rwanda tries to blend the colourful African joy of life into its products. For many of our foreign customers, our products are a long lasting souvenir of a journey to the Land of 1000 Hills."
What's the biggest piece of advice you can give to other women looking to start-up?
The major focus must be on quality and on customer satisfaction. The mouth to ear publicity is very important, but one dissatisfied customer can destroy in a few moments your reputation. Be careful when considering long term loans for investments. The interest rates are high and the benefit margins are small. A short term loan to purchase raw material may, however, in spite of high interest charges be helpful. Join the existing women entrepreneurs groups. A group can achieve more than an individual.
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Why LoA loves it….
More and more discerning customers are looking to support Fair Trade products that are proudly made in Africa, by responsible brands and companies, knowing that their purchases are making a difference. Bernadette Umunyana is one entrepreneur that is building a proudly Rwandan company and brand, committed to producing high quality products that also empower and uplift local people in the process. --- Melanie Hawken, founder and CEO of Lionesses of Africa