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Putting local goods back in Rwanda

You might be surprised to learn that many so-called African fabrics – fabrics that you buy in Africa and are called African fabrics – are actually made outside of the continent. On a recent trip to Rwanda, designers Eugenia Morpugo and Maya Ben David were shocked to find out that none of Rwanda’s “local fabrics” come from Africa, let alone Rwanda. To find out why that was, Morpugo and Ben David founded Atelier Rwanda and launched a research project to explore the local materials and techniques available in Rwanda in order to create economic opportunities and support the identity of the local culture.

Through a collaboration with a basket weaver, a group of tailors and students from the Kist University in Kigali, Morpugo and Ben David discovered that while Rwanda has a long tradition of using natural dyes in basket weaving, the same techniques had never been applied to textiles. The first step was to experiment with plants like eucalyptus, onion skin, henna, banana peels and the bright yellow, daisy-like flower kimbazi to see how they would have to alter the process for dying fabrics as opposed to the thicker and tougher materials used in making baskets.

The overarching goals of the project were to introduce an efficient and sustainable system of design and production made entirely from locally available materials. For example, Morpugo and Ben David set the group of tailors to designing sandals alongside the shoe maker who would eventually craft them, “creating new possibilities in local shoe production.” They also worked to improve the water supply and strengthen the “cultural exchange between Europe and Africa in order to enhance resources and working abilities in Africa.”

It seems preposterous that a country with so many naturally occurring materials to work with is only now putting them to use. Hopefully, as Atelier Rwanda’s project grows they can completely cut out importing those machine-dyed and cut textiles they used to call their own.