Interview: Ellie from Songa Designs

Ellie from Songa Designs
Songa Designs has been on my radar for awhile now, having seen their colourful jewelry hanging around the necks and off the ears of some friends. Songa is a great example of turning a passion into a successful business, not an easy thing to do in your home country, let alone somewhere else. I spoke with Ellie about Songa and business in Rwanda.

Can you tell us about yourself and how you ended up in Rwanda?

My name is Ellie Kates, and I am a trained visual artist and self-taught designer. I’m from the US (Virginia), and I graduated from the University of Virginia in 2006 with a BA in Political and Social Thought. I worked extensively in Guatemala in 2005 and after graduating from college in 2006, helping develop business and art education programming for indigenous women and their children. Upon returning to the U.S., I moved to New York City and worked with immigrants to start agricultural businesses and worked in international handicraft fair trade before moving to Rwanda in 2010. In Rwanda, I worked with Indego Africa and co-founded the Rwanda Fair Trade Artisan’s Association (RFTAA) and Rwanda Nziza store. In 2011, I co-founded Songa Designs with Sarah Dunigan.

Can you tell us about Songa Designs?

Songa Designs is a jewelry and accessories business that I started in 2011 along with my business partner, Sarah Dunigan. We partner with a large network of talented Rwandan artisans who produce superior handmade jewelry accessories in communities with little access to viable markets. We design fashion accessories that have global appeal but maintain local cultural identity – all while creating jobs in the community. Each accessory is made from locally sourced and naturally renewable materials. Our goal is to merge contemporary styles with traditional skills and native materials.

What made you want to start Songa Designs?

I wanted to find a way to combine my artistic background and passion with my desire to start my own business. Both art and business require an enormous amount of patience and creativity, and they suit one another well as a result. But the bigger motivator was trying to find a way to help impoverished people in Rwanda generate income for themselves in a simple, sustainable way. Both Sarah and I had worked in Rwanda and extensively with Rwandan artisans prior to starting Songa. We knew that talent and potential existed.

Our intention was never to re-invent the wheel with Songa; the intention was always to find new uses for the wheel and to make the wheel run more smoothly and productively. Why not build upon existing skills to create something better, something different? When we started Songa Designs, we already knew what kinds of materials Rwandan artisans were familiar working with and what kinds of products they were comfortable making from those materials. In the case of Rwandan artisans, ‘the wheel’ is traditional weaving techniques as well as sewing and tailoring skills. We knew we could find new uses for this wheel by teaching these artisans how they can produce high quality, market-ready products, how they can work efficiently and economically, and how they can create something new, fashionable and fun using the skills that already existed.

How did you find the process of opening your business in Rwanda?

Rwanda promotes business and makes the process of registering a business quite easy. The Rwanda Development Board has an easily accessible office exclusively dedicated to new business registration (on the left hand side as you enter RDB). All that is required is a business name check, a completed application and a registration fee. Once these steps are completed, you are issued a TIN number and you’re in business, literally. The process rarely takes longer than a few days.

Why is business important?

We believe that business can alleviate poverty. If business is done ethically, there is no confusion about the rules. There are no handouts; we create jobs and pay for well-made products. The people we work with know that they must do high-quality work in order to be paid and earn more orders. Sarah and I wanted to do business with those who could rise to the occasion. We have seen that being part of a business motivates people to do exactly that. We could set the bar high and people would reach it. Once they did, they’d be in a much better position than when they started.

Based on your own experiences, would you recommend that other expats with good ideas open a business?

Rwanda is an easy place to start a business as it encourages the development of business and provides support for entrepreneurs. That said, no matter where you are, starting a business takes more than a good idea, it takes a good plan—for the short and long term. I think you will have more success starting a business in Rwanda if your business idea contributes to larger sustainable business development in the country—hire and train Rwandans, for example. You must always understand and respect the fact that you a visitor in this country. You must remain humble, open, and respectful if you are going to gain people’s trust. Before you start a business, ask yourself how your idea might fill a gap. Why does this gap need to be filled? Do Rwandans want this gap filled? Will your business build upon existing skills and contribute to innovation and development in the country as a whole? Whether you are starting a business in Rwanda, or working with people in general, try to start from what people know and want to give them what they need.

How do you feel Songa helps ‘give back’ to the community?

Songa Designs in Rwanda is a proudly Rwandan business. We provide work for over 150 artisans and are in the process of hiring and training an exclusively Rwandan staff. We envision Songa Designs in Rwanda to be entirely Rwandan-run by 2013 as we expand and employ even more artisans.

What are your goals for Songa in the future?

Chiefly, our goal is to become a successful, sustainable business by designing high quality, fashionable jewelry and accessories that appeal to a wide range of people. We hope to become a premier designs house and globally recognizable brand. But our mission and goal will always be to focus on development instead of dependence by teaching artisans, as well as Songa staff, the skills necessary to compete successfully and independently in both local and global economies.

How can I buy Songa Designs products in Rwanda?

You can email me at to arrange either a private group show (or trunk show) or private sale. We also sell at local vendor fairs and at Pili Pili boutique next to Hotel Gorillas in Kiyovu. To learn more about us, check out the Songa Designs website and Facebook page.

About Kirsty

A Canadian who left in 2001 to wander around the world in search of sun, beautiful views and goat brochettes. Found Kigali in July 2010 and it seems like the perfect fit. I expect to be here until I get kicked out for defiantly walking on the grass while wearing flip flops.