A six-month internship in Rwanda in 2010 has transformed into a thriving, artsy and profitable business with international connections.
Charlottesville native Ellie Kates and her business partner, Sarah Dunigan, co-founded Songa Designs International in 2011.
Songa’s business philosophy is similar: empowering the women who make the jewelry to have a sustainable, profitable business with economic growth potential.
Songa means “summit” in Kinyarwanda and “continue forward” in Swahili.
The company designs high quality fashion accessories while providing dignified employment to artisans in rural communities. To focus on development instead of dependence by teaching these artisans, as well as the Songa staff, the skills necessary to compete successfully and independently in both local and global economies
In 2012, they launched an online store to sell Songa’s handmade jewelry and fashion accessories.
Kates, 29, and Dunigan, 37, have worked extensively overseas for several non-governmental organizations that seek to economically empower communities and their residents.
The jewelry incorporates banana leaves, cow-horn, recycled steel and recycled paper that’s been varnished or painted. Kates said almost all of the materials are locally sourced in Rwanda.
“To make it authentically Rwandan, we really had to look to the world around us,” Kates said.
“The inspiration from a design perspective was, ‘Let’s mix some color and texture and combine materials,’ but from a business perspective and a skill development perspective, it was an idea for how to expand upon existing skill sets to create something that was new and more complex that would help the women in Rwanda compete locally and also internationally,” Kates added.
“I really appreciate working with Songa Designs because Songa wants to grow well and become proud businesswomen. The business has a good process of developing our skills through gradual stages and this will help us improve our skills in business and make better products,” Dafrose, master basket weaver.
Dunigan said customers who like Songa’s earrings, belts, bracelets and headbands seem to appreciate not just the design but the extensive use of natural and local materials. A pair of earrings can be had for about $15, while necklaces are available for about $40.
“They know that they’re being made by artisans and not just a trinket,” she said.
In the mid-1990s, war devastated the country and in many ways — especially emotionally — Kates said the recovery is ongoing.
But economically, she said things are moving in the right direction, albeit not quite as fast as everyone would like. But for natives and longtime visitors, Kates said there are clear signs of economic growth and interest.
“Now when you touch down in Kigali in the airplane, you get off, you get into the airport and you see taxis that take you down paved roads … Everything is perfectly clean. They’re building up buildings; they have a skyscraper, so it’s getting more industrialized.”
Songa’s operations director, Jadot Niyomugabo, said the company’s approach has brought a sense of independence, self-esteem and dignity to the women and their communities. Adding that Songa also has created opportunities to learn about business practices, negotiation and marketing skills.
“And we have the opportunities of learning to design new things starting from what they have, to new business practices and skills like quality control that can be used in any other business partnership.
We have an opportunity also of learning from the American culture and experience,” he said.
“We went ahead and decided to start Songa with the intention of marketing these women’s talents,” Dunigan said. “After working with all these women and seeing the talent that they have, we just thought … ‘We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.’”
Dunigan oversees the sales side of the business from California. Kates, a University of Virginia graduate, said Songa has enabled her to pursue both of her passions — artistic design and business.
The company’s next goal is to obtain central warehouse and workshop space in Kigali. Kates said that will streamline operations and enable Songa to fill larger orders more quickly.
Kates said she never anticipated being the owner of an international startup business but is glad she’s found a way to combine her passions and talents.
“I was kind of looking [to do] one or the other and then I realized that I really wanted to find a way to do both,” Kates said.
In addition to immediate 10 Rwandan staff, Songa manages a growing network of over 150 artisans with the help of cooperative appointed Liaisons and Advisors. With ownership and accountability built in at all levels, the business promotes economic independence.
Songa Designs would not operate as efficiently as it does without the hard work of the smart and dedicated team, strongly committed to advancing local talent, the company relies on the expertise of its exclusively Rwandan staff.