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Mauritian Manufacturer Taps Youth to Foster Factory Innovation

Sourcing in Africa isn’t just about the next lowest cost—it’s also about innovation.

At one factory in Mauritius, a little island off the southeast coast of Africa producing for big brands like Adidas and Asos, young minds and intelligent ideas are leading the way. The model isn’t a surprising one as Mauritius was named the most innovative nation in Sub-Saharan Africa in last year’s Global Innovations Index.

“The future is in youngsters,” RT Knits fashion designer Danilo Sanassee, who is under 30, said at Destination Africa in Cairo last week. “The strategy of our company is to recruit young people with fresh ideas.”

As sales executive David Hung, who is also under 30, added, the company has what it calls RIGHT values: respect, innovation, greatness, happiness and trust.

RT Knits has more than 40 years experience in manufacturing in Mauritius, supplying high quality cut and sew jersey knits for menswear, womenswear and childrenswear, for brands like Adidas, Asos, Forever 21, Polo and Saks Fifth Avenue, to name just some. The vertically integrated company’s production capacity is 16 million garments per year and its staff is 1,800 strong.

Fabrics from RT Knits range from synthetic jersey to interlock, with functional properties like moisture management and anti-bacterial properties ideal for athleisure.

But more than just its experience and offering, the company has focused on innovation especially, and that’s what has set it apart.

Some of those innovations are centered on driving a more sustainable business.

With that in mind, RT Knits constructed its facility to capture the best solar energy throughout the day, and that combined with the strategic window placement to allow for the most light, has meant sewers can work without the need for electric light. The company is also working on building a dye house next to its knitting facility, where wind energy will ventilate the whole building, saving electricity that would have been needed for cooling. In that dye house, RT Knits is looking at ways to dye garments with less environmental impact.

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So far, RT Knits has already avoided more than 900 tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year (which is the same as taking 390 cars driving 1,400 miles off the road), and has reduced its water use per garment from 73 liters in 2011 to 18 liters in 2016, with the goal of getting the number down to 16 liters by 2020.

Another way the company channels innovation is in its approach to internal operations.

By hiring and empowering young staff members, RT Knits benefits from a similar type of spirit and inventiveness that has driven so many young startups to success. The average age of the marketing team is roughly 27 to 28. Marketing, sales and design staff travel to trade shows and other global destinations for inspiration, and to uncover future trends and novel ideas to present to clients.

“In our company, they trust us to innovate,” Sanassee said. “I think in marketing, you really need to trust the person, but our directors are very open-minded. They are approachable, friendly, they understand and they listen.”

RT Knits also has its own retail stores, called Newgen. There are six on the island stocked with 100 percent RT Knits product created by the in-house design and graphic teams and inspired by international catwalks but adapted for the local Mauritian market.

“Our philosophy is to make fashion clothing available to all social classes,” Sanassee said. “We have two seasons (summer and winter) and two big sales of half price on all items per year.”

Having the Newgen retail stores and having to fill it with relevant product gives RT Knits an even more acute understanding of what its clients need.

Mauritius—which is gradually becoming better known for its manufacturing and not only its beaches—ranks the highest of all African nations in terms of ease of doing business, coming in at 32 on the World Bank’s index for 2015. By comparison, Kenya ranks 108 and Ethiopia 148. The United Kingdom ranks six followed by the United States at seven.

“Buyers should come to Mauritius because Mauritius offers a good quality product, we respect the delivery time, we are producing eco-friendly product, we have the international norms that buyers are looking for,” Enterprise Mauritius assistant manager of operations Oumesh Prithipaul said, adding “And on top of that, we offer duty free access.”

Mauritius enjoys duty free access to the U.S. market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which was just renewed for 10 years last year, and to the EU under the Everything But Arms program.

“In the European market, Mauritius is well known, but in the American market, we should be more visible,” Prithipaul said.