10/21/2013 03:58 EDT | Updated 12/21/2013 05:12 EST

Canadian Fashion Designer Gives Rwandan Women a Future


Canadian fashion designer Johanne St. Louis was always passionate about social justice but when she happened to watch a documentary about the genocide in Rwanda, she knew just what to do. She would train Rwandan female victims of genocide to sew clothes for her company, Dreamyz Loungewear.

The process was never simple. Ms. St. Louis's, a 36-year old wife and mother of two, first travelled to Rwanda in 2008 and found that the women in the workshops tasked with making her products had basic knowledge about sewing but their conditions were poor. She raised funds to buy industrial equipment and supplies and in two years was able to employ 20 women. Ms. St. Louis has since gone on to train and improve other workshops and co-operatives.

Empowering Rwandan Women

While Ms. St. Louis offers women the necessary training to craft specific products for a North American market, these women set their own prices, which gives them a path to self-sufficiency. Over the years, she's developed a deep connection with these women.

"I have become more than just a client to many of the women I work with, I am now their friend...One time I was visiting one of the women at her home and she told me that for most of her life she had not felt like she was a human being but because I had come from the other side of the world just to have a cup of tea and visit her, it made her feel like a special human being," said Ms. St. Louis.

Ms. St. Louis's work in Rwanda isn't done yet. She has recently partnered with Rwandan fashion designer Ituze Ndutiye Colombe to create Doda Fashion House. In Kinyarwanda, "doda" means "to sew" and Doda Fashion House is a sewing workshop and training centre in Kimironko which will specifically train women in commercial sewing for export. Unlike more industrialized nations in Africa (e.g. Kenya) that already has an established garment production industry, Rwanda still has a long way to go.

"Training is key to Rwanda developing a garment industry and I hope to be instrumental in this process. My vision is to one day have 2 very successful companies that work together to supply quality fair trade clothing to the Canadian market and provide a better life for many women in Rwanda," Ms. St. Louis said.

Ms. St. Louis is now in the process of registering Doda International as a Canadian not-for-profit organization that would help to raise funds to develop the training centre. The organization will have its first event on November 10, 2013 at The Pilot Tavern in Toronto, Ontario. To buy tickets for the show or donate to the project, visit their website at St. Louis Fashion.

St. Louis' products are available online at Dreamyz Loungewear, her own Sew Perfect store in North Durham, about 100 km outside of Toronto, and some gift shops in the Toronto area.

By Nicel Jane Avellana, contributor at r/ally, the mobile collaboration platform that lets you socialize your goals.