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story.lead_photo.caption Benito Lubazibwa, organizer of Africa Day Fest, announced plans for this year’s event May 14 with help from some of the models who will participate in its fashion show. Photo by John Sykes Jr., Democrat-Gazette

Benito Lubazibwa is working to be a game-changer in Little Rock — expanding the city's cultural horizons, aiding small and budding entrepreneurs, and contributing to the revitalization of what is now known as the South Main District, or SoMa.

He has done so via an enterprise designed to help black entrepreneurs start and expand businesses and a seasonal, monthly, night market.

He has also done so with Africa Day Fest, a free, family-friendly street festival he began two years ago as a promotion and celebration of African arts and culture.

The third incarnation of the festival takes place from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday on Main Street. It's also designed — as stated on its Facebook page — to highlight the strong connections between the United States and African countries and to create a platform to share African history with Arkansans.

"Our goal is to share and celebrate our rich, diverse and colorful cultures," Lubazibwa says. "This is a street festival like no other."

And the community is noticing: The first Africa Day Festival attracted about 2,500 people, while the second drew around 4,000, he says, adding that he expects an even larger crowd this time around.

Kicking off the festival on Friday will be a ticketed event — the Made in Africa: Fashion Show, 6-9 p.m. at the Junction Bridge beside the Little Rock River Market. The apparel of designers Tremaine Pollydore, Freddie Reynolds, Ashton Hall, Missy Temeke and Korto Momolu will be shown during an event directed by Angel Burt. Cocktails, hors d'oeuvres and music by DJ Nick Hud also await guests.

Saturday's main event will feature music by vocalists Bijoux, Butterfly and Michael Walker; trumpeters Rodney Block and Twylite Jones; musician/bandleader Tim Anthony and steel-drummer Darril "Harp" Edwards. Also included will be performances by the Komezakakaranga Drummers from Burundi; the Mabelvale Elementary Drum & Groove Ensemble; spoken-word poetry by the House of Art; dance performances by Hot House Gruv, an electro-hip-hop band from Memphis as well as Outloud Artistry and Umoja Dance Group; African-dance and best-African-dress competitions; children's activities and another fashion show.

A highlight of the festival will be the awarding of a trip to Ghana to the winner of a contest for which entrants were asked to make and post videos explaining why they should be chosen to go.

Gallery: Africa Day Fest

But a yearly African festival wasn't enough for Lubazibwa. In 2018, he introduced what could be described as a recurring mini-festival: the Little Rock Night Market, held on first Fridays from September through November at The Bernice Garden, 1401 Main St.

The market included food vendors, music and the wares of local artisans and attracted growing crowds.

"I decided to start the Little Rock Night Market to provide a platform that brings the community together through food and music while celebrating the diversity within our city and encouraging people to support local entrepreneurs," Lubazibwa says.

"The theme for our market was 'One City, One Love.' We wanted to bring unity to the city. We wanted to fill the space and not create separation. The Night Market proved that we can come together."

The Night Market was also designed to create "a proof of concept" for entrepreneurs, Lubazibwa adds. The event allows vendors to "test" their wares to see if shoppers like them. If attendees buy the product, this lets the vendor know to bring more of the same to the next Night Market. If the product stays on the table, the vendor knows he must figure out how to improve his product.

And for the small band of homeless people who congregate at Bernice Garden when there's nothing going on, the market has an added benefit: Lubazibwa employs them to perform set up duties before the event and clean up afterward at a rate that's usually $15 per hour.

The 2019 Night Market was to have begun its 2019 season on Lubazibwa's birthday, May 3, but was canceled due to rain.

The series of events will open June 7 and run through November.

Burt, who also serves as chief creative officer of the Night Market and its parent company, ReMix Ideas, referred to the market as one of the most diverse and welcoming events in Little Rock.

"We encouraged attendees to support the vendors," she says. "We understand that when people shop locally, they are creating jobs and improving the economic health and success of the areas closest to them."

Denisha Cleaves (right) of Memphis and Shakeenah Kadem (left) of Fort Smith play the drums during the 2019 Africa Day Fest. Photo by Thomas Metthe, Democrat-Gazette
Denisha Cleaves (right) of Memphis and Shakeenah Kadem (left) of Fort Smith play the drums during the 2019 Africa Day Fest. Photo by Thomas Metthe, Democrat-Gazette

REMIX IDEAS

The festival and the Night Market are outgrowths of ReMix Ideas, a for-profit company Lubazibwa founded in 2017 and of which he serves as chief executive officer. The mission of the company is to build an "ecosystem" for black entrepreneurs to start and expand their businesses.

"While there is evidence of notable entrepreneurial activity and efforts of building a strong local economic system in Little Rock and surrounding areas, still, black entrepreneurs face barriers that limit them," Lubazibwa says. "I decided to launch ReMix Ideas to foster a more inclusive and equitable local economic system and increase the number of successful black entrepreneurs in our state.

"I also believe that if entrepreneurship is integrated with humanity, it can be a major force in solving social problems, transforming lives and building sustainable communities."

Lubazibwa came to Arkansas from Tanzania in 1996 to attend the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. He began his first business shortly after graduation — Sokoline Inc., a business-to-business Internet portal dedicated to the facilitation of international trade, with a primary focus on businesses in Africa and North America. And, he says, he found himself with a desire to help others began theirs.

The company offers consulting for early-stage startups; provides access to capital — micro-loans — via a program in conjunction with financing partner Communities Unlimited Inc.; provides business knowledge via workshops, lectures, seminars and other events designed to give entrepreneurs a help up; and produces a periodic ReMix Ideas Pitch Challenge, a "Battle of Ideas" event with a $5,000 prize to the winner. ReMix Ideas also generates "social capital" for entrepreneurs with networking events and lends its name and concept to a weekly radio show on KABF-FM.

In addition, the company is introducing a Grassroots Stock Investment Club. Through the pilot program, black investors will learn about, and utilize, the stock market through class attendance, online and hands-on training, and participation in the ReMix Stock Challenge, a simulated contest designed to develop and manage a personal investment portfolio. In April, the company announced the debut of its Startup Business Academy, a program designed to provide owners of new businesses with the opportunity to "test-drive" their ideas with potential customers and clients. The Academy will hold free information sessions from 9-10 a.m. June 1 and 8 at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. Attendance at a session is required for prospective participants to receive an application form. Classes will be held from 9 a.m. to noon every Saturday for 12 weeks, starting July 20, at the college.

But Africa Day's Friday-evening fashion event and Saturday's festival will be about pleasure as well as business, not to mention an opportunity to broaden one's horizons.

Designer Momolu, a Liberia native and Little Rock resident who rose to fame as runner-up on Season 5 of the reality show Project Runway, sees Africa Day Fest as "an openly inclusive cultural experience for all people."

"The festival welcomes and allows others not from the continent, to seek, find, explore and enjoy the wonders of the entire continent in one visit," she says. "[I'm] thankful for its continued growth and inspired by the drive of all behind its grandeur."

IT'S ABOUT OWNERSHIP

What is Lubazibwa's ultimate goal in the midst of these multifaceted pursuits?

"My strategic intent is to inspire, bring hope and transform the mindset in our community," he says. "It is imperative that the black community work together to build a shared economic mobility through ownership of businesses, real estate and stocks."

There's a Bible scripture, Matthew 7, that states that people will be known by the fruit they bear.

Says Lubazibwa, "I judge each day not by my fruits, but by the seeds I plant."

Third Annual Africa Day Fest

11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday South Main District, Little Rock

Admission: free

Africadayfestival.com

Pre-festival event

Made in Africa fashion show

6-9 p.m. Thursday, Junction Bridge, River Market District

Tickets: $30-$50

madeinafrica2019.eventbrite.com

Style on 05/21/2019

Print Headline: Cultural exchange

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