Welcome to season two of the podcast! This first episode features Kevine Kagirimpundu, CEO and co-founder of Uzuri K&Y. She was named among the top 10 heroes creating change across Africa in 2019 by the Africa Netpreneur Prize Initiative. In today's conversation, Kevine talks about her entrepreneurial journey with her company Uzuri K&Y, a shoe brand established in Rwanda which recycles waste into functional and fashionable products. She also shares her passion for empowering youth and women especially from urban vulnerable communities. Listen to her story.
Please note that the recording conditions were not optimal. In spite of our best efforts, there is still some residual background noise and we hope this will not affect your listening experience. Thank you for your kind understanding.
Hi, everyone, and welcome back to the Narratives of Purpose podcast. We are back and we're kicking off season two with some amazing and incredible guests. I am still so impressed by their generosity in accepting to join me on the show. If you're tuning in for the first time, my name is Claire Murigande, and I am your host on this podcast, which actually started about a year ago as a simple idea to bring stories of people I knew, and people I was following from a distance closer to a global audience. Now, what is special about these stories is that although these are people just like you and me, what they do is simply remarkable. They are contributing to social change in their communities all around the world. So let's get started with our guest on this new episode. Her name is Kevine Kagirimpundu. She is based in Kigali. And she is the co-founder and CEO of Uzuri K&Y which is a shoe brand, and a manufacturer established in Rwanda since 2013. This is no ordinary shoe brand because they create sustainable products at the same time, they improve people's lives in vulnerable urban communities through education and employment. In our discussion, Kevin talks about their entrepreneurial journey, their mission to recycle waste into functional footwear, and also going through the challenging times of the COVID 19 pandemic. Please take a moment to rate and review our show by subscribing to your preferred podcast app. But for now, have a listen to Kevine's story, her passion for sustainability, and empowering youth and women. Good morning, and welcome to you, Kevine.
Thank you so much, and thanks for the invitation.
You're welcome. It's really my pleasure. I'm really happy to have you today on the podcast, and to accept it to join me and also to talk about your company Uzuri K & Y. You are not only the co-founder and CEO, but he will also be named among the top 10 Heroes creating change across Africa in 2019. By the Africa net for Enterprise Initiative. Congratulations to you.
Thanks so much. It was such an honour to be part of this in 2019. And be part of such an amazing group of entrepreneurs across Africa. I mean, Sub Saharan Africa, North Africa, South Africa, it was impressive.
I was wondering if you could give me a bit more of an introduction on yourself and a bit of your background. And especially how you came up with this idea to start this company. Tell me more about that
I used to mention so much about myself, but a little bit about my background is I was born and raised in Rwanda, Kigali, was born to a teacher and an entrepreneur. And unfortunately, I lost both my parents in 1994 tragedy genocide against the Tutsi. And of course, as you grow, you just continue to find yourself as you find your voice as a young woman in this world. I just surprisingly, was born in a family of people who are talented surprisingly, artists, painters, architects, and some are poets and so much more. But I didn't care so much about it because my goal has always been to be excellent in school so that you can get a scholarship and what was going well, then, if I may jump to my life in high school, what was going well was being a student in sciences and just knowing that if I finished high school, I'm going to go to university and probably continue sciences. But then you just, I guess, as you continue growing, you just want to find your own purpose, not the purpose that has been manufactured by the society because, you know, if you study sciences, you're going to get a scholarship and ABCD so I joined University at the beginning of 2012. And as we joined, I was going to study Civil Engineering for sure. I was like, okay, this is it, but I was terrified. I was not happy with it. I didn't see myself as an engineer, which I loved. I love physics. I still love all sciences still today, but I thought that I had a way bigger purpose than that. And I remember just going to the school that I was oriented to or the government has just oriented me to. I just went to the school and I couldn't see myself studying in a class. And the first thing we started studying was algorithms, which was something we're studying in high school anyway. And I was like, You know what I did that already. I don't think I can do that again. So I got out of the class and I went to the Registrar General of the school, the university. I asked her if she could change my course. And I had just noticed different options available. And I decided to join the creative designs and environmental builds, which was a new faculty under architecture. And I was like, I just need to be part of this. And she wasn't impressed because she's like, you're just throwing away a huge opportunity. Because engineering is the way to go. I remember just asking her for a period of two weeks, I wasn't attending classes, I wasn't doing anything, I think I was on the verge of just I'm gonna drop out if they don't give me the opportunity to study something that I feel like I can truly do as a person, and that could really fulfil my purpose. And luckily, she allowed me to change my faculty and I went to creative design and environmental appeals. And that's where I met my business partner today. She was already part of the creative designs department. So yeah, it kicked off from then and we became friends. And we started talking about the future, how are we going to be employed? That was a big question, like, who's going to employ us, because as you may know, 60% of the total unemployment rate in Africa is made by the youth. And among that 60% Women are likely to be unemployed even more often than young men. So we were so worried about it, instead of just discussing what we can do with our talents? What can we do with our hands, we're super good with creating different products, prototypes, and samples and just putting together ideas, a collage of ideas and coming up with a product and we're just like, What can we do, we're passionate about this, can we create something that will allow us to employ other people as well as ourselves. And in our second year university, we decided to launch Uzuri K&Y, which was more like, we had nothing, it was Uzuri K&Y, which had a table and the two of us, and I had a summer job I had 60,000 Francs, which is approximately $100 back then. And I bought a sewing machine, I put it in my room and started learning how to sew, started researching, I started learning and teaching myself. And that's, I would say, that's where Uzuri K&Y was born. That's what I can say, to introduce the brand and the story of it all. It's a long story, though, it's a really long story, I would have to talk for a very long time.
Maybe we can have another episode on that. But honestly, it's great to hear. And I really love this story. And the way that you know, it started by, you know, teaching yourself and learning by yourself and really being pragmatic to say, Hey, we are young people, we don't know what the future is going to hold for us. So let's make something happen for ourselves. And that's the very essence of entrepreneurship, and quite inspirational and very role-model-like so that's really great.
It was more for us than it was for anyone else. But then, as we continue to learn, we just realise that there are so many people who do not have opportunities and the opportunity to be educated, and especially the formal education because it's really expensive. And it's very hard, especially for women. So as we continued learning, we realised our communities were lacking opportunities that are involving learning skills, or know-how skills, practical knowledge that could really help them. And today, of course, there are two things that I can say that our company is solving. We're solving two problems. One is unemployment, which is a crisis across Africa, especially among the youth and women. Number two, our brand is very focused on creating an eco-friendly environment where we're recycling old car tires, turning them into durable and fashionable soles that are really changing the way communities live. today. I'm going to say more about it because when you go to the slums of Kigali, or anywhere in Africa, go to Angola, Kenya, South Africa, anywhere in Africa, you realise they're always dumps or landfills that are filled with old car tyres. And the more society grows, the more cars we use, and the more these tires are filled in landfills. And it takes at least up to 80 years for rubber to decompose, while polluting the water, air, and even becoming nurseries for mosquitoes that carry a lot of diseases. So these landfills, they sometimes just fill, and they start dumping the tires into the neighbourhoods, usually urban neighbourhoods, and they are inhabited by single mothers or families that are a little bit more vulnerable than others. So it becomes a whole issue rather than just a tire. It becomes a health issue and becomes a big problem for the climate. And today, they're considered some of the most problematic sources of waste in the world. So we are trying to go around removing them from the landfills, and creating beautiful, beautiful outsoles that our customers enjoy today. And yeah, we're happy to keep continuing doing this and telling our story and in the stories of the people who are actually making these shoes and putting them to the market. And it has become such a lifestyle, especially one I find that is locally celebrated by people. Today we're employing over 85 people in different fields, whether it's the people who are selling, who are producing, collecting our tires over 85 people, and the number could go higher as we get more opportunities as well. Let me talk a little bit more about the training that we created.
The problem started from the beginning, because I remember the first person we worked with, we had to train them to believe that nothing is impossible, because there was this mentality of Oh, that's not possible. This is not possible. You can't create a shoe from scratch. It's never been done before. It was more like solving an issue that was internal, which is we don't have skilled labour. And, even if the skill level was there, we don't have money to pay them. So the programme was born out of frustration that we have to produce a product but we don't have anyone who can produce it. First, we just ask people around - Do you know anyone who wants to learn the craft of shoemaking? Then we received five people, and we hired two of them. Then we continued like that. Later on, we realised we needed more people, we launched an announcement in the radio where we asked people to apply for the programme. And we wanted 50 people who received over 300 applications then. And we were like, What are we going to do because we cannot afford to train 300 people and we can't even hire 300 people. So we had to re-strategize and think of how we can leverage this and actually make opportunities for these people. Because It was more like people were desperate or especially young people and women are desperate to learn, get knowledge so that they can use that on the labour markets and also potentially create micro and small businesses. So I remember just convincing my business partners and saying we have to do this, we have to create this programme. And make sure that we have a scope and write something and put it out there. By then we introduced the products to different organisations that really helped us, SCS organisations from Germany. And that really helped to bring expats who could train people. And it continued like that over and over again. And the first batch that we trained became trainers that are training today. So we don't have to continuously bring labour from outside. And so far we have trained over 1060 people, some through practical skills, others through soft skills, or it's somehow together. And it has been such a great turnout because now there are at least 10 young people who have been in small businesses and among all those people we could continue to give way more chances to women than men because women have been finding it harder when it comes to being employed or even getting skills.
I can see really, you know, as you tell this story, how this has evolved, especially like in your mind, you mentioned in the beginning that your idea was to solve unemployment especially in the youth and you built this training programme. So you're even creating and contributing to create the skilled labour force you know, either if they stay with you at Uzuri K&Y or if they go ahead and create their own businesses or join other companies. So you're really actively contributing to creating these skills in the youth, that's really a great, you know, a great initiative of yours and that you have been able to implement that. And the other thing that I heard that you explained to us is the part that you're also contributing to, I would say, the circular economy. So you're using, you know, you're basing your whole products, to some extent on waste, you know, so you're making sure that all this that's going unused, and just standing in the environment and polluting, and also influencing diseases - Yes, you you mentioned malaria before, you're really taking that and bringing it to another level and saying Hey, we have a resource here, even though it's considered waste, and we can make something out of it. Can you explain briefly what has been your impact so far? You know, how have you been able to quantify you have the training programme, obviously, you have created jobs as well. Your company has grown, I assume, as well? So tell me a bit about the impact of your company?
Oh great, good question. So, the company today is, well, obviously no longer a table and the two of us, it's now a team of people, who are continuously working together to build this idea of an eco-friendly brand in Africa. And actually, I can proudly say it's the first footwear brand manufacturer, shoe, anything related in Rwanda. And it's still leading the industry today. And on top of that of course, we have created a retail business out of it, where we establish retail stores in Rwanda now, there are four, and of course, for the past few years, we also were able to sell in Kenya. And plus, we have been able to reach the international market through Ecommerce, whether it's on our websites or other platforms that are out there. So I would say that we have been able to grow not just an impactful company to the community, but also a profitable company. That is, I would say investment-ready on the growth stage, where today we're confidently speaking to investors, we had just, we also received an investment a few years ago. So it's really a combination of both. Uur business model is very tricky, but it's very functional. It takes time, but it's very functional, where I would say business mixes with social entrepreneurship. And it becomes a whole other entity. But we are confidently growing the brand using a franchise now we are approaching the retail part of the business by using a franchising model, maybe one day we will open in Switzerland through a franchising model, because I think companies like Ikea have successfully used that model. And it works really well. Last year, I attended the Acumen and Eye Care Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator Programme, where one of my mentors was a senior member of IKEA, and she still is. And I learned so much about franchising and how you do it and how you build a brand Bible to build to convince people that this is a brand worth investing in, putting their money in and attaching their names to it. So in terms of business, that's all I can say for now. There's so much more going on. But sometimes it's more confidential. It's not public yet, but that is what I can say now.
It's really great to see how you're already looking, you know, forward and asking yourselves, where can we bring this? How can we grow? How can we make even more impact and reach more people to tell our story, so that's really, really, good. I wanted to ask how the current pandemic has affected your activities.
So the pandemic is as it as you can see, I didn't even mention it because it was such a difficult time. When it happened, when they first detected the first case in Rwanda. We actually opened a new store in Kigali. And just like that, boom, one day after we opened the store - it just closed. Everything closed, the whole country is under lockdown. And we're wondering what just happened. We were just living life like it's normal. But then to be honest, so much happened, it was a tough situation for our health system as well. Not only the government, but especially the health system. And we really understood this, how it is and how it's going to be for the next few years. And one thing that we did was to communicate with stakeholders with partners, employees, customers, just communication, communication, telling them that we're not going anywhere, because we're kind of survivors, you know. When you're an entrepreneur in Africa, you are a survivor, there's so much that happened, that you have to solve there are always tragedies. So you're kind of used to having such things happening, even if I can say that it was a much bigger tragedy than the rest. But it was more like, oh, things like this happen. So how can we do this, re-strategize this, look at people, let's meet people, and let's communicate to our partners and all of our stakeholders so that we can remain in business, let's keep our employees, that was a very major discussion. How are we gonna take care of employees, and during this time, when literally nobody's working? So we try to keep everybody busy introducing courses introducing ideas of what they can be doing during the lockdown. So that nobody feels like even if we decided to pay people, everybody feels like, Oh, I'm getting paid, and I'm home, and I'm doing nothing, you know, it doesn't feel like that. So it was a very tough moment. But we continued raising money here and there so that we could continue to be able to pay employees, and keep our businesses open of course.
That's really great to hear. And I have to say, it's an amazing example of resilience. And also overcoming challenges by staying engaged with your stakeholders and your employees. So that's really very role-model-like. Again, I can only use this word role model Whenever I listen to you talking, because you're a trailblazer. And you're just showing the way forward, you know, like, don't give up and just find a solution to whatever comes at you.
Thank you so so much.
So maybe one one last question on how do you see this whole entrepreneurial scene? Especially in Rwanda, or even in East Africa, if you have some connections, you say that you opened a retail store in Kenya, for example, how do you see this evolving, especially women, being entrepreneurs, and activities what are the next steps that you could share for your brand?
When it comes to the future of entrepreneurship, especially for women in Africa, it's just so promised because the numbers show us that 58% of entrepreneurs in Africa, pursuing creating SMEs, (small and medium enterprises), is made of women that 58% of all entrepreneurs created in Africa. However, when you go to numbers of women, requesting loans from the bank, or having access to finance in any way, is lower 34% than men. And that is a challenge is when I started a business. I didn't even know those numbers, they were nowhere to be found. But today, people are starting to pay attention to what women are doing. And that is a great, great thing. The start of a conversation is the beginning of just finding solutions. So women's future in business is very bright. But we need to be persistent and continue talking about these things. And today, it is such a great opportunity for me to be able to voice what's going on and talk about my business so that someone else can be inspired and know what's going on one more person is going to learn what I just said. And that is very, very important. And when it comes to Uzuri K&Y we're seeing Uzuri K&Y the one of the biggest shoe brands in Africa, we have shoe brands in Africa, some of our competitors that have been known and none of them are truly African. None of them have been owned by Africans. So we're creating a brand that could potentially be the biggest brand of footwear manufacturers or even also recognised in the whole world, but mostly leading the African footwear industry. The future is sustainability. And the future is absolutely African enterprises, especially women owned enterprises.
Wow, that's really, really beautifully said. I couldn't agree more with that. And whoever didn't know that, you know, women are making things happen in Africa. Well, you are the living example living proof of that. And I really hope that you know, as you say more people pay attention, especially that more people support women in finding funds and capital to startup. Thank you so much, Kevine. It was really, really great to have this short discussion with you.
That was episode 12. A Conversation with Kevine Kagirimpundu, what a fabulous young entrepreneur, she has truly earned her place among the heroes creating change across Africa. I have selected a few resources for you in the show notes, including the link to Uzuri K&Y website. But I want to highlight this particular one, which is the TEDx talk that Kevine gave in 2019. This talk is titled "Passion as a tool to start and build a business". Absolutely inspiring. I highly recommend you spare 12 minutes of your time to listen to it. So that's it. We've kicked off season two and thank you so much for tuning in and listening to this new episode. I appreciate you taking the time. And I appreciate your support. Our listeners community keeps on rolling. Don't forget to stay updated through our social media handles. We are on LinkedIn on Instagram and now also on Facebook. So make sure you engage with us on those platforms. Tune in again in two weeks for the next episode. Until then, take care of yourself. Stay well and stay inspired.