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October 21, 2017
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A woman from the Cocoki co-operative working on a textile. Photograph courtesy of Indego Africa.

A growing number of fair trade labels have been knocking at the doors of the fashion industry, some with more luck than others. Indego Africa, a design-driven social enterprise that works with over 400 female artisans through nine for-profit cooperatives, is one that has seen doors open.

However, the company's success has not come purely from luck. Thanks to a clearly developed business model and much foresight, the U.S. 501(c)(3) non-profit has partnered with the likes of Anthropology, J.Crew, Madewell and Nicole Miller and its roster continues to grow. With 100 per cent of its profits invested in business, literacy, technology and health training programs in Rwanda, the company is not only selling fashionable products, but also re-enforcing a sustainable business model that enables and empowers its artisan partners to be financially independent.

The Butare Bangle in hot pink.
Photograph courtesy of Indego Africa.

What began in 2006 as a conceptual model that would promote transparency and create social change, has now grown into a full-blown business that is forecasted to generate gross revenue of around US$800,000 in 2012.

Indego Africa knew the importance of generating a sound business model before focusing on where best to implement it. By 2010, it had become a global example, attracting the likes of Harvard Business School. Professor Kathleen McGinn, who led a case study, commented: "Indego Africa's success reflects its close relationship with existing organizations within Rwanda, especially with existing women's cooperatives. Rather than trying to create something from outside, Indego Africa facilitates the development of pre-existing, local organizations by connecting them with international markets."

Indego's story begins with founder Matthew T. Mitro, who was already quite familiar with Africa having lived in Nigeria for six years. Mitro practiced as an attorney at Akin Gump LLP in Washington, DC focusing on project finance in developing countries. After three years with the firm, he had the perspective, passion and experience necessary to endeavour on his own project. He began developing a working model based on the belief that social enterprise had the potential to transform lives.

With a sound business model in hand, Mitro next focused on where best to bring it to life. Several key factors influenced his decision to implement his model in Africa, particularly in Rwanda. Africa as a continent has a lively community of highly skilled artisans who creatively transform surrounding resources into products that represent the diverse regional cultures and traditions. The challenge: how to get the products to market. Without economic incentive, many artisans are forced to look for other options, leaving little time to continue to practice their crafts.

The artisans are viewed not as employees but rather as business partners with a vested interest in gaining financial independence.

Rwanda, in particular, was profoundly affected by the devastating genocide that claimed over 800,000 lives in 1994. However, the country has also showed quick recovery in a relatively short period of time making it a promising place to launch a business. The World Bank's 2012 index of 183 countries ranked Rwanda as the 45th easiest place to do business worldwide, and the 8th easiest place to start a business.

After selecting Rwanda as the location to implement Indego Africa, it also made sense that Mitro would decide to focus on economically vulnerable women. During the genocide, Tutsi women were specifically targeted - many were raped, sexually mutilated and infected with HIV/AIDS. Today, numerous women still face the consequences as widows with little education or access to healthcare who are the sole providers for their households supporting an average of 5.5 dependents. The country has gained remarkable gender equality since the genocide thanks in part to the 2003 passing of one of the world's most progressive constitutions for women's representation that has led to 56 per cent female representation in Parliament. Despite such gains, Mitro knew more could be done.

While building partnerships with women-run cooperatives are important to Indego's success, Indego Africa also invests in the artisans' futures through educational initiatives. The artisans are viewed not as employees but rather as business partners with a vested interest in gaining financial independence. One hundred per cent of profits and donations go towards training programs that empower women and teach them the skills necessary to function as independent businesswomen.

Training is focused on four key areas: business, literacy, technology and health. Several partnerships have provided the necessary support to maximise success. In particular, Indego has seen four partner artisans graduate from, and two currently enrolled in, the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women initiative, which has invested US$100 million in business and management training for women across the globe.

Additionally, Indego partners with local organisations such as Generation Rwanda, which promotes leadership and educational opportunities for orphans and other socially vulnerable young people in Rwanda. Generation Rwanda students administer several of Indego's training programs and in turn, participate in Indego Africa's Internship Professional Development program. Several Generation Rwanda students who graduated from Indego's internship program now serve as full-time employees of Indego.

Women from the Cocoki cooperative
receiving their English certificates.
Photograph courtesy of Indego Africa.

By working with a range of cooperatives that specialise in weaving, knitting or sewing, Indego Africa is able to extend its impact geographically while also offering a diverse range of products that can respond to market trends. Sales are fairly evenly divided between wholesale, retail and online with a growing number of brands approaching Indego regarding possible wholesale collaborations.

Thanks to positive reviews from established brands, Indego has built a reputation for itself and formed valuable relationships along the way. While the company continues to build its own brand, outside partnerships offer additional market channels, sources of revenue and exposure. They undoubtedly contributed to the doubling in revenue and tripling in product sales that occurred from 2010 to 2011, adding to the company's long-term potential and introducing Rwandan artisans to overseas business practices.

What started with a small order from Ralph Lauren for 1,000 banana leaf bracelets that were sold in four small boutiques in America in the summer of 2010, has since evolved into a roster of brands knocking at Indego's door. Anthropology was so satisfied with a small order of 750 scarves that hit shelves in fall 2010, that it increased the order to 4,500 the following year. In spring 2012, Indego produced products in partnership with Madewell and J.Crew.

Independent designer Nicole Miller has also benefited from working with Indego. The first collaboration resulted in a bangle and bracelet collection in 2010 that then grew into a co-branded holiday collection in 2011 featuring necklaces, backpacks, totes, sarongs and shorts. Miller even made a two-week personal visit to Rwanda in October 2011 to commemorate one year of working with Indego, meet its partner artisans and lead several workshops. What began as a collection-based business partnership, has now evolved into a much longer-term relationship.

The Hazaza beaded necklace in metallic navy.
Photograph courtesy of Indego Africa.

Reaching out to external brands has been fruitful but has also provided several challenges. Indego has had to implement high quality control standards to ensure that brands receive consistent goods "as pictured." Additionally, as Indego is officially certified by the Fair Trade Federation, its prices reflect the cost of paying its partner artisans a just price for their products as determined by widely-accepted fair wage calculators and employers in partner communities. It pays the cooperatives 50 per cent in advance of production and the remaining 50 per cent upon delivery of finished products. Shipping, packaging, tagging and potential mark-downs also have to be factored into pricing. However, considering all profits and donations go towards training programs, Indego's pricing system reflects the social value it places on its partners' communities.

Not only do logistics have to be taken into account, but the design process itself can also be a challenge in a country with limited resources. Brands sometimes approach Indego with a product in mind, some even with a finished design, and then work with Indego to achieve their goals using Rwanda's existing resources. Other times, Indego's team in New York or Rwanda develops products which brands then purchase as wholesale orders. Still other times, partner artisans in Rwanda pitch designs to Indego, a true sign that Indego is achieving its goal of engaging artisans in the creative process and empowering them to direct their own designs with an eye towards international trends.

Still other times, partner artisans in Rwanda pitch designs to Indego, a true sign that Indego is achieving its goal of engaging artisans in the creative process and empowering them to direct their own designs with an eye towards international trends.

While Indego does not have any formally trained designers on staff, the company nevertheless knows the important role design plays in ultimately selling products - a good story only goes so far in the market. While Indego Africa's products are currently sold in America and a few select boutiques in Australia and the UK, the company sees great potential for expansion given the strength of the Fair Trade movement. However, international sales have proven difficult because of trade laws, especially considering many of the goods are made from plant-based fibers.

When looking to the future, Indego would eventually like to see the Rwandan cooperatives take business into their own hands and negotiate independent deals. Thanks in part to the company's training programs, several partner cooperatives have already grown their businesses through local sales in Rwanda. Additionally, during Miller's October 2011 visit, she executed a purchase order directly with Cocoki, one of Indego's partner cooperatives, for paper bead necklaces. The deal marked the first time a major American label has ever made an order directly with a Rwandan artisan co-op without external intermediary assistance.

For 2013, Indego Africa will continue to build its own brand while focusing on increasing small volume orders with labels such as Nicole Miller, DANNIJO, Jill Golden, Pamela Love and launch its first children's partnership with ODE Kids. As Indego Africa continues to make in-roads to the fashion world through its collaborations, it remains to be seen whether it will build a name for itself in an industry that leaves no room for sympathy. Other companies with similar missions such as VOZ, Awamaki and Afia wait in line as well.

As companies that built as social enterprises that prioritize the long-term impact on economically vulnerable, skilled artisans, the real question may be how much they really want to be part of an industry that relies on passing trends. Perhaps by joining forces, they will find a new way to face market challenges, set standards and work on their own terms across sectors at a human-centered pace.

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