Categorized | Social Entrepreneur

Indego Africa: Fair Trade in Rwanda With A Social Enterprising Twist

Embracing An Entrepreneurial Spirit

As a boy, Matt Mitro lived in Nigeria for six years while his dad worked for Chevron. Some of his memories involve the chaos of the era, like the military roadblocks and how his family would put green leaves on their car to show they were sympathetic with rioters.

But equally vivid are his memories of the hard-working locals, people stuck in poverty but possessing a strong entrepreneurial spirit. “Some would cut people’s toenails on the street for five cents, like a shoeshine,” he remembers. “Women with babies on their backs sold pineapples and mangoes that they carried around on their heads, 10 at a time.”

Fast forward a number of years to 2006. Mitro was a young attorney at a global corporate law firm in Washington, D.C., focusing primarily on global finance projects. His pay was great and the work was challenging, but he knew something was missing. The images of his time in Africa were still with him, and he decided embrace his own entrepreneurial spirit. His idea was Indego Africa (http://www.indegoafrica.org/), a social enterprise that would help African women to deliver themselves out of poverty. Late that year, Matt decided that it was time to get started. He quit his job and set out for Rwanda.

Indego Africa’s Social Enterprise Approach

Unlike traditional exporters or charities, Indego Africa empowers more than 200 Rwandan artisans by linking access to fair trade export markets with business skills, with the hope of creating a new generation of independent African businesswomen. The Rwandan women receive fair trade prices for their contemporary accessories and home décor crafts—which are then sold on Indego Africa’s Webstore (http://shop.indegoafrica.org/) and at more than 30 high-end retailers across the U.S., including Polo Ralph Lauren and Anthopologie. Indego Africa returns 100 percent of the profits, plus donations and grants, back to the cooperatives of women for ground-breaking training programs in financial management, entrepreneurship, computers, and literacy, which are taught by Rwanda’s top university students.

The model has paid massive dividends. In 2009, Indego Africa launched its first Social Impact Report, which announced that, among other things, there was a 336% increase in the number of women earning more than US$ 1 a day; a 96% increase in the number of families eating at least twice in a day; a 42% reduction in the number of women with no permanent residence and a 26% increase in the number of households with beds for all residents (for more info see http://indegoafrica.org/socialimpact). In addition, just this week Emelienne Nyiramana, Treasurer and Master Seamstress at Indego Africa’s partner Cooperative de Couture de Kicukiro (“Cocoki”) in Rwanda, has been admitted to the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women Initiative and will begin a six-month Entrepreneurship Certificate Program at Rwanda’s School of Finance & Banking in July 2010.

Corporate Lawyers on the Loose

Ben and Matt

Ben and Matt

As Mitro worked to get Indego Africa off the ground, he was searching for a partner to help him grow and manage the ambitious and increasingly complicated business. Enter Ben Stone, Mitro’s close friend from their days playing ping pong together in college at Washington University in St. Louis. Stone, an attorney at a global corporate law firm in New York City, had always had a big interest in Africa and had even done some pro bono work for African organizations. But, most importantly, Stone reflected, “Indego had been developed by one of my closest friends and could be really important,” and he decided to help.

Stone first brought Indego Africa in as his pro bono client in 2007, but after an inspiring trip to Rwanda in 2008, he knew that he had to devote himself to the cause full time. “Meeting the artisans really changed the way I looked at a lot of things,” Stone remembers. “I knew immediately that this was what I was meant to do.” Stone approached his bosses at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, prepared to take at least six months of unpaid leave to help Mitro. But, instead, Stone was stunned when they offered him the opportunity to devote all of his time to Indego Africa, but still receive a portion of his salary. “I had to grab a chair to keep from falling over,” recounts Stone. This was not only a life changing move for Stone, but also a recognition of how corporations are uniquely positioned to drive forward social change. “What Orrick has done with me is completely outside the box,” Stone explained. More than two years later, Orrick still supports Stone’s full-time work at Indego.

A Business Minded Approach

By 2010, Mitro and Stone had methodically built Indego from an idea into a high-performing social enterprise. As he and Stone built Indego’s infrastructure, they relentlessly documented nearly every major policy and decision. Their goal is to demonstrate that corporate form is irrelevant, and that a socially-driven enterprise should be run as efficiently and profitably as a Fortune 500 company. Indeed, with an infrastructure rivaling companies ten times its size and management techniques honed in the corporate world, Indego Africa is poised to scale its model throughout Africa and exceed the financial and social expectations of its clients, donors, staff, and artisan partners. This business approach includes: (a) short- and long-term strategic planning, (b) highly-scalable supply chain and distribution system, directly accessed by artisans, (c) documenting and institutionalizing of policies and procedures across all business units, (d) adhering to best practices in accounting and maintaining strict financial controls, (e) deploying cutting-edge communication, information-sharing, and social media tools, and (f) formalizing training methodologies for academic and third party review.

Indeed, Indego Africa’s social enterprise business model is currently the subject of a Harvard Business School case study, scheduled for publication this fall. Kathleen McGinn, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School (HBS), said recently in a news article: “Every step along the way, the fact that they are incredibly well-trained lawyers has allowed them to move forward with nary a misstep. This is completely backward from what everyone else does. They created all the processes before they started, designed all the procedures, translated them into the language the women needed and created the links to the America market.”

Mission: Independence

Indego’s approach is unique in that the ultimate goal is for the women to achieve independence in three areas: personal finance, independence from Indego Africa, and access to the export market. Yet achieving this independence is a series challenge. Many of the women at Indego’s partner cooperatives cope with HIV; have little formal education; suffer psychological or physical trauma from the Genocide of 1994; care for several children, including orphans; and are the sole providers for their households.

Indeed, the women at Indego Africa’s partner cooperative, Twiyubake Family (“Twiyubake”), have been struggling with extreme poverty for as long as they can remember. Just this summer, however, they produced a line of woven bracelets for Polo Ralph Lauren. When first approached about the order by Indego Africa, the women were hesitant. They had never made this type of product, and they had never produced a custom order for a large retailer. The timeline was short and the pressure was on, but with Indego Africa’s guidance, the women of Twiyubake completed the order on time and with perfect quality. Now they are confident and raring to go on their next big export order for the U.S.

The stories of the individual women empowered by Indego Africa prove inspiring. For instance, Daphrose Mukamugema, a 56 year-old master weaver at Indego Africa’s partner cooperative Covanya, lost her husband and seven children in the 1994 Genocide. “Many of the women are shy, but Daphrose is so fearless and bright spirited,” Mitro said. “I often wonder where she draws her strength.” In her own words, Daphrose describes Indego’s impact on her life: “Before Indego I was like an abandoned forgotten person but now I feel like I am useful to society because I can produce something. I am no longer a consumer, I can contribute.”

Changing the Fair Trade Conversation

Indego Africa, a proud member of the Fair Trade Federation, strongly believes in the ability of markets to foster social change. However, the concept of perfect competition – the predicate for mutual benefit through trade – does not exist in the African handicraft sector. Commercial entities and poor artisans do not possess equal bargaining power. Some U.S. companies operating in Rwanda, for instance, routinely finance their handicraft orders by failing to timely pay artisans or offering commercially unreasonable terms. Furthermore, there are significant barriers to artisans entering the export market on their own, whether structural (customs, exports, financing) or personal (literacy, language, business practices).

The concept for Indego Africa is simple but powerful antidote to this problem: help artisans bridge the bargaining power gap and overcome barriers to market entry over the long-term through focused training, while concurrently generating immediately-needed income (on fair terms) for artisans using their own efforts and talents.

As Mitro explains, “Women are the backbone of a lot of these societies,” he commented. “The role of Indego Africa is to provide them with the opportunities and tools to succeed.” Everyday Indego Africa is empowering hundreds of women in Africa to lift themselves out of poverty and make changes in their community.

GET INVOLVED: [email protected]
-Diana Warth
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2 Responses to “Indego Africa: Fair Trade in Rwanda With A Social Enterprising Twist”

  1. hohner says:

    Hi! Great post! :)

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