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Revolutionising the African Fashion Industry : a Conversation With Maryse Mbonyumutwa

Updated: May 2

As the visionary behind the Asantii brand, Maryse Mbonyumutwa is leading the charge in revolutionising the African fashion industry. The unique, contemporary designs embody a pan-African aesthetic, capturing the diverse cultures of the continent and paying tribute to the African woman. Not only are the designs striking and impactful, but the brand also prioritises sustainability by using eco-friendly materials and supporting local artisans by sourcing 80% of fabrics and accessories from Africa. Asantii truly offers a gift to the fashion world, highlighting the cultural richness and undeniable influence of Africa on the global stage.

Portrait of the charming Maryse Mbonyumutwa, captured inside the Asantii store -- Photo credit: Cynthia Butare

"African fashion should not be reduced to a mere imitation of culture," Maryse Mbonyumutwa explains to me. "We shouldn't take a literal approach. The aim is to give it a fresh interpretation. That's where true creativity lies. The goal is not to replicate what already exists, but to use it as inspiration to create something entirely new."

We had been following each other on social media, but our first in-person meeting was a chance encounter at Moses Turahirwa's Imandwa exhibition in 2021. Since then, we hadn't had the opportunity to reconnect, so I extended an invitation to her to join me for tea at my home. My goal was to learn more about her journey and her role as a leading figure in the creative industry in Rwanda.

During our conversation, I listened to Maryse with great attention, impressed by her visionary ideas as an entrepreneur who is pursuing her dream of a pan-African brand that can compete with the biggest fashion labels. With a rich and diverse professional experience gained in countries such as Germany, England, Belgium, and China, Maryse is currently based between Kigali, Brussels, and London, where she is actively working to bring her ambitious project for her Asantii brand to fruition.

Maryse, known for her textile trading and manufacturing company, Pink Mango, in Rwanda, has introduced Asantii, a revolutionary enterprise for the African fashion industry. Asantii opened its doors in a recently renovated building located on the cobblestone street of Kimihurura, Rwanda in December 2022. To celebrate the opening, a soft opening event is planned for February, followed by a grand opening in March, attended by the sixteen talented designers who contributed to the creation of the brand. Asantii also has franchises in the United Kingdom, Ghana, and South Africa.

An embodiment of Africa's cultural richness

A glimpse inside the charming store on the cobblestone street of Kimihurura -- Photo credit: Cynthia Butare

The Asantii brand has successfully crafted a collection that exudes a pan-African essence, through its imaginative incorporation of styles, materials, and cultural influences. This is achieved through its collaboration with 16 talented designers from 12 different countries, including Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Ghana, Morocco, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The result is a diverse array of styles, each one a unique and modern creation that reflects the rich cultural heritage and spirit of the African continent.

In addition, the brand is committed to using eco-friendly materials and to favouring local artisans by using 80% of fabrics and accessories from the continent such as cotton from Madagascar, Faso Danfani from Burkina Faso, cotton and jeans from Egypt, and cow-shaped buttons from Ethiopia and Kenya. And if you take a look at their designs, you'll see that some are inspired by Adinkra symbols or Ashanti kings from Ghana, while others draw inspiration from the Abacost of Mobutu in the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Xhosa wedding dress.

Telling the story of Africa through fashion

Fashion is a powerful cultural storytelling tool that allows us to tell stories, convey symbols, values, and emotions. As Africans, we have the opportunity to strengthen our multiple cultural identities through fashion. It gives us the chance to represent ourselves, assert ourselves, and claim our place in the world by valorising and celebrating our rich cultural heritage while creating a renewed vision of Africa that transcends reductive ideas.

To create the collections, designers receive detailed instructions that include the inspiration themes. One upcoming theme, for instance, is that of African queens. Through the team’s research and development, Maryse discovered exceptional queens throughout the continent that they were previously unaware of. She believes this provides an opportunity for Asantii to not only educate international consumers about Africa and its history.

Asantii has therefore chosen to do research work and draw from the wealth of African culture, which offers many unexplored possibilities. This is why the Asantii brand, inspired by history and culture, strives to create original, authentic and iconic products. By wearing these products, consumers can display a style that has deep meaning and soul, while embracing a contemporary lifestyle.

Africa, an independent economic player

When hearing that "Africa is the future of the textile industry," Maryse was initially excited as she saw this as an opportunity to create jobs, transfer skills, and become competitive in the international market. However, she realised that there were underlying messages to take into account. From manufacturing countries, such as China, which needs to relocate due to difficulty in attracting its youth to the manufacturing industry, Africa is seen as a future source of cheap labour. From Europe, Africa is seen as a future consumer market.

Upon coming to this realisation, Maryse felt a sense of disappointment that in reality, Africans are not viewed as equal partners in this equation, but rather as mere future labour or consumption sources. This means that factories are built in Africa to produce goods intended for export to the West, where they will be modified to give them added value before being resold to African consumers at a significantly higher price than their original cost. This means that African consumers pay more for products that were partially made on their own continent. Even worse, these same clothes end up being bought in Africa as second-hand clothing, which contributes to perpetuating cycles of poverty and economic dependence.

The influx of imported used clothing poses a significant challenge for local clothing manufacturers, making it difficult for them to compete and sell their products. As a result, the local textile industry declines, resulting in job loss and reduced economic opportunities. Furthermore, the sale of second-hand clothes perpetuates negative stereotypes about Africa, creating the false impression that the continent lacks the means to produce and support its own textile industry.

"As Africans, it is crucial for us to understand that we possess the necessary production infrastructure," says Maryse. "This enables us to produce and offer high-quality products that add value to our continent."

Despite a population of 1.4 billion, the African textile industry accounts for only 0.1% of the global economy and is underrepresented in major trade routes, where brands from other continents dominate. However, it has the potential to play a key role in promoting economic development on the continent. Maryse, through Asantii, aims to demonstrate that Africa can become a self-sufficient and independent economic player by promoting a thriving and respected textile industry. She believes in the potential for an African fashion industry that can drive economic growth by valuing local talents and offering quality products.

From Conception to Consumption

A glimpse inside the Asantii factory, where Asantii pieces are being brought to life -- Photo Credit: Cynthia Butare

Joined by Queen and Sybille, two members of the team, I visited the factory which is a remarkable model of industry evolution, standing out as a factory, not just a workshop, among the big companies in the Kigali Special Economic Zone, such as Ameki Colors, Dodoma, Pharmalab and Volkswagen. It testifies to Asantii's ambition and determination to become a major player in the production sector. The efforts to modernise the infrastructure are evident and encouraging, but more importantly, the diligent work of the many employees is a tangible reminder of the positive impact a company like Asantii can have on our regions.

I then continued my visit to the Asantii store in Kimihurura, where the clothes are directly shipped from the factory to the store. Thus, I discovered the finished products, elegantly presented in a well-designed space. The dim lighting created an elegant and sophisticated atmosphere, while allowing for total immersion in the brand's universe. Under the explanations of Noble, attentive and available to answer all my questions, I felt like a privileged guest in this intimate and captivating space.

Asantii pieces on display, ready to be discovered by customers -- Photo credit: Cynthia Butare

Guiding the designers through the process of expanding globally

"To develop the fashion industry in Africa," Maryse told me before I visited the factory, "it is crucial to support the emergence of many brands to create a solid ecosystem and a competitive market."

Thus, the Asantii team is committed to supporting its designers to emerge outside of the Asantii structure, to commercialise their brands internationally and to become leading figures in their respective countries in order to inspire others to develop and contribute to the growth of the fashion industry. In addition to monetary compensation for their designs featured in Asantii collections, creators are also given non-monetary compensation in the form of access to Asantii's resources and support team. This allows them to tap into the expertise of the entire team and increase the chances of success for their brand on the international market.

Dedicated employees expertly craft each piece of Asantii with precision and care. Photo Credit: Cynthia Butare

In sum, Asantii is a project that seeks to honour Africa and its cultural wealth through artistic expression, poetry, and authenticity. The name Asantii itself is a play on words, combining the Ashanti ethnic group and the Swahili word "Asante," which means "thank you." It pays homage to our ancestors and reminds us of the importance of gratitude for those who have inspired us. It is a fitting name for a project that aims to give Africa a platform to be heard and to earn the recognition it deserves in the global fashion industry. Thus, for Maryse, Asantii is "a tribute to Africa, a continent that has given so much to the world yet has not yet received the acknowledgement it deserves."

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