Design meets development in Rwanda
Our goal at Indego Africa is to put ourselves out of business, literally. We’ve joined forces with noted fashion designer Nicole Miller because we believe she can help us do exactly that.
Indego Africa, a nonprofit social enterprise, connects for-profit cooperatives of women artisans in Rwanda with export markets for their goods and provides training to help them run their businesses more effectively. Specifically, we market the handmade accessories and home décor items that our partner cooperatives produce on our e-commerce site and to US brands and retail chains. Then we pool the profits with donations to fund training programs in financial management, entrepreneurship, literacy, and computers—all of which are taught by Rwanda’s top university students. By helping our partner cooperatives tap into new markets, generate sales, and acquire functional skills, we believe we can help them to create viable, sustainable businesses that can provide a path out of poverty. And if we do it right, at some point they won’t need us anymore.
Indego Africa’s collaboration with Nicole Miller (both the designer herself and the company bearing her name) began in August 2010 with an initial test order for textile bangles and woven bracelets produced by some of our partner cooperatives. Miller formally launched the bracelet collection over the 2010 holiday season at her boutiques in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. After the bracelets sold out, Miller and Indego Africa capitalized on the momentum with a series of new designs, including sarongs, shorts, bags, and jewelry. These items are now also sold at Nicole Miller retail stores and on both entities’ e-commerce sites.
We believe this partnership holds valuable lessons for social innovators. Part of the power of the partnership derives from the nonprofit/for-profit hybrid we’ve created. We’re driven by more than simple altruism, although that’s certainly part of what makes it work. While the alliance allows both sides to live our social values, it also furthers core business objectives, including making profits, attracting new customers, and enhancing our brands.
When Nicole Miller places an order for Indego Africa products, each party along the supply chain turns a profit. As for-profit businesses, Nicole Miller and each of Indego Africa’s partner cooperatives exist to make money. Even if her business got great press, Miller could not justify selling goods from the cooperatives for long if she couldn’t make money on them. At the same time, she also gets a reliable sourcing channel for unique product offerings that appeal to the next generation of end-customers who increasingly want to believe in what they wear.
Meanwhile, Indego Africa benefits from the relationship as well. In addition to paying artisans a fair trade wage Indego Africa must cover other fixed costs—a must if we’re to continue our mission of assisting women in Rwanda to lift themselves out of poverty. Partnering with a globally recognized label raises awareness about Indego Africa’s social mission and brand, dramatically enhancing our ability to forge additional income-generating relationships and thus multiply our impact in Rwanda.
Miller does much more than just place orders. Her commitment to working closely with the artisans on the design and innovation process teaches them important skills that should enable the cooperatives to continue growing. The sewing cooperative Cocoki, one of Indego Africa’s partner cooperatives, is a good example. After working with Indego Africa for three years and experiencing rapid growth, Cocoki was ready to begin standing on its own. In October 2011, Miller spent a week in Rwanda training Cocoki’s membership so they could better produce additional goods she anticipated including in an upcoming collection. Soon after, two of Cocoki’s leaders visited the United States. Those visits in turn led to the first-ever direct purchase order between a Rwandan cooperative and a major US label, when Nicole Miller placed an order for paper bead necklaces from Cocoki.
By basing our relationship on a shared set of business goals, as opposed to purely charitable ends, Indego Africa and Nicole Miller have fashioned a mutually beneficial nonprofit/for-profit partnership, which we believe can be expanded and replicated with other brands. The transformative impact on the lives of the artisan women in Rwanda extends beyond the profits they’ve earned. They’ve also gained essential skills, from how to design to how to navigate the export market. The partnership arms them with the confidence, creativity, and sense of ownership to claim control over their own futures as independent businesswomen. Each income-generating transaction gets us one step closer to our goal: sustainable, economic independence for talented women entrepreneurs in Rwanda.