Starting a clothing line in RwandaTue, Feb 14, 2017
For everyone to shine bright like a sunflower
Recently, Africa is drawing attention for its quick development as the place to do business. Tomoko Nezu, a student from the School of Social Sciences, took a leave of absence before her fourth year and went to Rwanda, alone. There, she started the fashion brand Alizeti, which sells tailored clothes such as skirts and dresses made from African fabrics sold at Rwanda’s local markets. As a Nagasaki native (Nagasaki is one of the two places in Japan where the atomic bomb was dropped during WWII) who had exposure to peace education from a young age, Waseda Weekly asked her what she hopes to accomplish through her business.
Are there any reasons why you became interested in Africa?
During my college search, I learned that “peace means to resolve all kinds of conflict, including war.” This was a revelation for me. Of course, I had always known that war is terrible, but for real peace, we must tackle other issues, such as poverty and discrimination as well. From this point onward, I started to think about how I could fight poverty.
Poverty is an issue that comes up often in my peace studies seminar taught by Professor Hidetoshi Taga. But because I had never experienced poverty myself, I decided to go to Africa when I was in my second year to better understand it.
Dressed in bright colors
As a start, I went to Kenya for 2 months as a volunteer, and my faint image of Africa was overturned. The people were cheerful and free-spirited, dressed in bright, colorful outfits. Nevertheless, signs of poverty, such as children not being able to go to school or people without jobs, did exist.
After returning to Japan, I became driven with the idea of doing something to grapple with poverty in Africa, but not like the “support” international organizations provide. I wanted to do something standing on equal grounds with the locals and decided that doing business in Africa was the best option. There is a common interest of pursuing profit in business, naturally calling for a fair, entrepreneurial partnership.
You went to Africa before your fourth year to start your business. Wasn’t this a big decision for you to make?
To be honest, it actually wasn’t. Many members of AIESEC, a circle I belong to, take a leave of absence to go abroad, so it was kind of within the norm for me.
I directly negotiated via email with a Japanese businessperson who started a company in Tanzania to become an intern there and study business in Africa. When I told my parents about my plans and asked them about taking a leave, all they said was “sure.” After interning in Mozambique, I was transferred to a flower export company, where I became responsible for flower farming. I inspected effective ways to sow seeds with my coworkers, and in the meantime, worked out my business plan and learned the local language and lifestyle.
Your fashion business is unique in a sense that it is made-to-order. You have customers in japan select the textile of their choice online and tailor it in Rwanda, according to their desired design and size.
There are many personal tailors in Rwanda, and most locals have their clothes custom-made. But because there are so many tailors, not everyone is busy and highly skilled. I came up with a business plan so that such tailors would have income and training. When an order is placed from Japan, the local staff (female Japanese students studying abroad) explain the details on what the customer is looking for. I want to add that these students are the buyers, selecting kawaii fabrics at the market. They also give technical instructions to the tailors. English and the local language are used for communication, but sometimes the design looks completely different from what was expected, perhaps as a result of differences in senses. Yet, it is quite satisfying when you see the final product. When the product is sent out, we enclose a photo of the tailor holding the clothes. Most of them look very happy and proud of their work, and seeing these pictures me feel glad that I started this business.
After returning from Africa, what kind of differences have you noticed in yourself?
Before, the slightest criticisms would have me worried about whether my decisions were right or not. Now, I feel more confident about the way I think and feel. Alizeti means “sunflower” in Swahili. I would like all my customers to enjoy fashion and the tailors in Rwanda to gain more income and improve their skills while having fun working. For these reasons, I named my company Alizeti, so that everyone involved shines like a sunflower. Empowered by the people who support my mission of starting Alizeti, I hope that I can share my goals of fighting poverty and bringing peace to the world with many people as possible.
What are your future goals?
In the future, I hope to be an influential role model to someone interested in challenging themselves or in pursuit of something. Additionally, I would like to go back to Africa 10 years later and continue my mission.
A Nagasaki native, Tomoko Nezu started Alizeti on January 4, 2016. She used cloud funding to collect the product development cost, but ultimately ended up with 300% of her goal.