MARYSE MBONYUMUTWA: “Asantii challenges African diaspora to develop the continent”

With 20 years’ experience in the textile industry, Maryse Mbonyumutwa decided in 2010 to join forces with the Chinese group CandD to create the textile manufacturing company Pink Mango, which today employs 4,000 people (80% of whom are women) in its own local clothing factory. Through her brand Asantii, which means “thank you” in Swahili, she aims to shift global textile production from Asia to Africa, while pursuing a responsible and avant-garde CSR policy. ANA met her.

Interview by Bernard Bangda

While Africans prefer European and American places to settle, you do the opposite. Why is that?

I began my career in Belgium and England. Then I came back to entrepreneurship in Europe, which I haven’t left completely. I still have offices there, with a team in Belgium and another in England. In our industry, the expansion is more towards South East Asia, which I did as a subcontractor.

The first reason why I returned to the continent is that I am first and foremost an African, a Rwandan. But I also believe that the business I’m involved in has to make sense, it has to be profitable, because you don’t come back just because you have a sentimental attachment to the place where you’re setting up your business.

Then there is a message in this whole project. This message is mainly addressed to the African diaspora in Europe, of which I have been a part for 27 years. There is a tired discourse coming out of the university and African intellectual circles in Europe. In fact, this tired discourse is based on two points: the situation of our continent is the fault of the colonizer or the neo-colonizer; this situation is also the fault of our leaders.

“The 4,000 workers in our factories, of whom about 75% are young people under 30, are 4,000 not in fact would-be exiles to Europe”

As long as we are sitting comfortably in Europe and can afford this kind of discourse, I always ask the question: and after these observations, what do you do? My project takes this message to the diaspora. Whatever the state of our countries and our economies, the development of Africa is our primary responsibility. We must stop victimizing ourselves, even if the grip of the neo-colonialists is strong, the answers to Africa’s problems must come from Africans.

The third reason is that, having arrived in Europe as a refugee, I have experienced the African refugee experience in Europe. Especially in socialist Belgium, which at that time allowed refugee candidates to study. This is no longer the case. When I see how Africans arriving in Europe are stigmatized, I think that something needs to be done to integrate these refugees, especially young people, who are a grey area. Certainly, if they were better integrated, they could provide solutions both for the host countries and in Africa by creating jobs. You were able to visit our factories, which employ a total of 4,000 people, of whom about 75% are young people under the age of 30. In reality, that’s 4,000 people who are not would-be exiles to Europe. We are all connected and I believe that solutions must be found at all levels.

Speaking of your employees, doesn’t having a large number of girls in your workforce create problems of instability?

“In the right environment, women are more productive and conscientious than men”

I have to admit that this is one of the great challenges in our industry. When I started this business with a Chinese partner, from whom I have since parted for reasons of vision, recruiting young girls was a problem. But that was wrong because we eventually realized that, given the right environment, they are much more productive and much more conscientious than men. They can be much more loyal. That’s why it’s so important to have facilities in the workplace.

You remember the CSR policy we talked about during your visit. We have to integrate the realities of our country, of our continent. I was recently at the National Dialogue meeting where we were presented with the figures from the latest census. It shows that women are in the majority at 51%. Africa also has the highest birth rate in the world.

Instead of running away from these problems, we must face them. Face them, turn these disadvantages into advantages. If I can give you an example, based on statistics that are still under construction here, the pilot project of the crèche that you saw, which includes the breastfeeding pilot project, is giving very positive results. This is because the mothers who have their children in the crèche, those who are breastfeeding, are among the best performers in the factory. We are waiting for much more reliable statistics after six months. At the end of the day, there is no difference between a man and a woman, except in the results of each one behind the same workstation.

You opt for quality by producing little. Is this profitable?

We have chosen to produce in small quantities for a number of reasons. Firstly, we are a brand that is just starting out. This is very important. Secondly, we want to be sustainable. Today, the biggest pollution in our industry comes from overproduction. From the moment we produce more than we can sell, the unsold products become waste in the medium and long term. So, we need a change of mentality in the fashion industry. We need to start rethinking our fast-fashion methods, where we are forced to produce millions of low-quality products every six weeks that will only be worn for a limited period of time. This is one of the biggest challenges facing the environmentally damaging fashion industry.

On the other hand, we produce in small quantities because we are also in the process of training our employees. You have seen the level of quality we are achieving, which I believe is the highest in Africa for an African brand.

Thirdly, we are still in the investment phase. But the volumes you have seen will develop in our business plan as demand increases. And thirdly, we are not at a price level that requires a return on scale today, because it is a premium luxury brand. And around the world, the volumes of premium brands are much lower than mass market brands.

You have chosen to invest in Rwanda, which has no access to the sea. This is supposed to be a handicap for the export of your products. No?

“With a rather poor soil compared to other African countries and without a port, Rwanda has developed. This is the result of voluntarism”

The answer came from the government, which saw in our project the potential of creating at least 10,000 jobs. It could have been installed in other African countries that have ports, produce cotton and have much larger populations than ours. In the end, we chose Rwanda because it reacted quickly and came up with an exceptional solution. After the few years I have spent as a “repatriate” in Africa, I believe that the greatest wealth we all need to invest in – and I will surprise you – is not raw materials, but volunteerism. And why is that? Because we are a country that does not have a rich subsoil. It is rather poor compared to other African countries. We don’t have a port, but you’ve seen what Kigali looks like today. This is the result of voluntarism.

I cannot imagine that when we see other nations that have built airplanes, rockets and many other extraordinary things, we in Rwanda, a landlocked country, had to find solutions so that such a project would not escape us. Otherwise, as I said before, in addition to volunteering, we had to put in place a program of incentives. And these fiscal and logistical incentives have allowed us to mitigate the logistical constraints of being a landlocked country and to have logistical operating costs equivalent to those of being located near a port.

The second most important point is that when we talk about foreigners, we are not just talking about European countries and the United States. The countries that border us are also foreign. We set up this industry in Rwanda to capture the common market offered by the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). As long as we sell to Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Congo and beyond, this means exporting abroad. And Rwanda’s geographical location will not be a disadvantage. On the contrary.

Where do you source the raw materials for your products?

“From 2024, we will use cotton grown, processed and transformed in Africa to keep the added value on the continent”

We have two activities. The main one is specialized in the production of winter jackets with sleeves and allows the investment in Asantii. The raw material comes 100% from China. However, the raw materials that contribute to the manufacture of the Asantii brand products come to us from a small paetotu on the continent. In particular, Egypt, Madagascar, Kenya, Burkina Faso and Morocco. And we are going to intensify our sourcing on the continent next year, especially as our volumes increase. We will be able to attract textile manufacturers to show them that there is a potential market. We will use cotton grown, processed and transformed in Africa to really keep the added value on the continent.

“When VIPs leave with a product from an African brand that they combine with other luxury and premium brands from elsewhere, we have changed the narrative”

What was Asantii doing at the FIFA Congress in Kigali?

Asantii was chosen as one of the Rwandan fashion brands to be presented to VIPs interested in fashion. FIFA Ambassador and Brazilian model Adriana Lima and former model Victoria Secret were among those who came to shop at Asantii, a brand they and the FIFA President’s wife love. We showed them what Rwanda can do best in terms of fashion brands.

The feedback was very positive because they bought a lot. This shows that it’s not just a medium that you buy like a handicraft when you visit a country. If you buy four or five items of clothing for yourself, you are going to wear them and you are convinced that the quality is better than what you see elsewhere.

If they leave with a product from an African brand, with a “Made in Africa” label from materials sourced in Africa, and you’re very proud to pair it with other luxury and premium brands, then to me you’re really ticking the box of “changing the narrative.”

Source: Africa News Agency