Trade Not Aid

Interview with Conor French, CEO at Indego Africa

Indego Africa is a design driven social enterprise that connects African women artisans with global markets and educational opportunities. They are re-defining what they see as an “outdated handicraft model of economic development,”while mapping out a replicable blueprint for unleashing the power of female entrepreneurs in Africa. Conor French, CEO of Indego Africa, is dedicated to developing the stages of the organizations' entrepreneurial model and shares his thoughts and experiences with HAND/EYE. 
 
HAND/EYE: What do you find to be most innovative with regard to your business and educational model? What sets Indego Africa apart from many other artisan-based, social enterprises?
 
Conor French: By focusing on both market access and training equally, Indego Africa’s approach to poverty reduction combines a market-based solution with traditional philanthropy. This approach works because it meets each artisan woman where she is now, but steadfastly walks in partnership with her through each developmental stage—all the way to sustainable, economic independence.

Our market access initiative allows women to participate in global commerce and the world economy; it resonates with those whose mantra is “trade not aid”. We plug craftswomen into a large existing consumer goods fashion market, helping them tap into increased opportunities provided by the growing ethical consumerism and sustainable product movements.

Even with a market-based solution to poverty, however, there remains a crucial role for traditional philanthropy. Philanthropy catalyzes our artisan partners’ participation in the global marketplace on their own terms and without Indego Africa’s help. Only through training can we mentor them to learn the job skills necessary in order to run their own self-sufficient and prosperous businesses. Stated differently, without training, it might be trade not aid, but it will be trade that is always going to be heavily reliant on a third party intermediary. Our goal at Indego Africa is to put ourselves out of business with respect to any one of our cooperative partners.

H/E: Your model is to "unleash the power of women entrepreneurs..." Why women and what sort of successes have resulted from this? 
 
CF: I believe in the power of equal opportunity and I also believe that, in many areas around the globe where certain populations of women lack access to income and education, that working with those women is the right thing to do, it leads to efficient outcomes, it is smart business, and it keeps us safe.

First, a powerful narrative shaped by people like Sheryl Wudunn, Nicholas Kristof, and others makes a pretty clear case about the moral imperative we share to remedy gender inequity worldwide. In that sense, economic development with women-owned and operated businesses is one approach to tackling this twenty-first century moral challenge.

Second, when you invest in women, you benefit from a multiplier effect. You can achieve more with less. Not only do women reinvest earned income in their families and communities, but women’s education helps remove social, political, and economic barriers and even leads to better health outcomes.

Third, smart businesses and organizations increasingly recognize significant future growth in women’s share of the labor market and the consumer market—especially in areas like consumer goods. Those businesses and organizations can then forecast the importance of empowering precisely that population which will likely become a crucial long-term source of both human capital and purchasing power for their products.

Finally, job creation and access to a functional economy for hundreds of women whose families would otherwise remain marginalized, can go a long way toward reducing the security threat in regions around the globe.
 
H/E: What percentage of women would you say remain working with Indego Africa versus those who branch off and start their own businesses?  
 

CF: We envision our partnerships with artisan groups as long-term engagements. As I mentioned, the ultimate goal is sustainable economic independence for each partner cooperative, but that is an ambitious vision and takes time. Since each woman is a member of a for-profit enterprise (rather than an employee of Indego Africa), branching out on her own does not require starting her own business (she is already part of one) or even completely severing a relationship with Indego Africa. As a specific partner cooperative’s level of self-sufficiency, profitability, and sophistication increases from access to income and training, that cooperative will begin to work more and more independently and with customers other than Indego Africa.
 
H/E: How do you find working with larger retailers? What are the challenges as you deal with fashion trends and ever changing needs in the marketplace? 
 
CF: As long as we clearly set expectations upfront and then meet them—business practices that are fairly basic and customary in most sectors—we have enjoyed mutually beneficial, durable, and iterative relationships with our brand and retail partners.
 
Opting for long-term engagements with artisan groups with specific skill-sets could make us more susceptible to shifting trends (rather than readily diversifying our product lines by seeking out new artisan groups to work with). Our approach to overcoming these challenges is to emphasize design innovation and product research and development with our many partner cooperatives, so that they can better keep pace with evolving trends. Often this design-intensive focus requires patience on the part of our trainees, as it heavily prioritizes the prototyping and sampling process.
 
H/E: Do you find handmade products to be suitable for the mass market?
 
CF: Yes. We have not worked with Target or Wal-Mart (yet), but we have completed large scale orders for several notable fashion brands. Among the primary challenges would be: (a) arriving at costing models that work at mass market price points, (b) uniformity in production at scale, (c) compliance with rigorously standardized delivery requirements, and (d) access to capital for raw material investment or other upfront costs. For (a), regulatory frameworks like the African Growth and Opportunity Act have been helpful in developing workable costing models, although high variable costs remain the most difficult issue. We have found that, if we can find costing models that work (and we historically have), we should be able to work together to overcome the other challenges. In relation to  (b) and (c), for example, Indego Africa initially absorbs the risk by performing external quality control and assisting with standardized delivery requirements. At the same time, we apply our donations income to build internal capacity within those same business functions (as well as literacy and technology) at the cooperative. Therefore, in the short-term, our partner cooperatives are not set up to fail—we work closely to help them—and, in the long-term, they are learning the skills necessary for performing those functions without our help down the road. Finally, (d), fair trade frameworks, other prepayment structures, and raw material financing can ensure that artisans can meet all of their personal and families' basic needs while working on a large scale order. The bottom line is that barriers definitely do exist, but that educational opportunity and technical assistance, such as that provided by Indego Africa, can readily help Target or Wal-Mart and artisan groups overcome them together.
 
H/E: Do you think that artisan enterprises can create sustainable businesses by working locally in their own country? Or do you think that export markets are needed? 
 

CF: It probably depends on the local market. We view export market access as supplementing— rather than supplanting—local market participation. Our training includes modules focused on local market opportunities and we encourage our artisan partners to seek high volume orders for products such as school uniforms. We also assisted an affiliate cooperative that sought capital to set up a storefront in Kigali, Rwanda for reader clarity and, although they didn’t receive funding, would like to see more partner cooperatives aggressively pursue local market opportunities such as that.
 
H/E: Where do you believe the world of artisan work is headed in the future? 
 

CF: As artisan work continues to be a tool for creating economic opportunity in many different contexts around the globe, we will probably continue to see more and more of a split, with certain people focusing on different objectives. Some will target supply chain inclusion, while others will focus on things like cultural sustainability and preserving specific types of crafts(wo)manship. I think that for the potential of the movement to truly make a difference in people’s lives, one must realize that all of those divergent objectives aren’t necessarily at odds with one another; they are united by an underlying concern for safeguarding artisans’ livelihood. For Indego Africa, we are creating new market opportunities for our clients so that we fall pretty far on the spectrum of sourcing and supply chains. We also remain linked to others who might focus instead on promoting an ancient traditional art form in the sense that we are all working diligently to create lasting value for the artisan skill-set.
 
H/E: Have you created a business model which you hope to replicate? 
 

CF: Absolutely, but more like replicate-plus than just replicate. We apply lessons learned and/or change contexts in order to constantly improve and adapt our model. We are always in search of better and more efficient outcomes. People forget that a robust impact assessment framework—something we intently focus upon—not only measures how well an organization is meeting its stated objectives, but also helps an organization identify ways to optimize or enhance its programming and performance. It is really about, wherever possible, figuring out ways to scale your impact without necessarily scaling your organization.
 
H/E: What are some of the mistakes you are willing to admit that may help other entrepreneurs in this field? 
 
CF: Like most, our mistakes are many. From thinking that fundraising could be as simple as “if you build it, they will come” (it isn’t) to underestimating the difficulties in building a cohesive global organizational culture (it’s hard), we have had our share. But my view on entrepreneurship is that, perhaps as a coping mechanism, people too often seek learning only in mistakes or failures, whereas far more is actually to be gained in thinking through and truly understanding your own and other’s successes.
 
H/E: Is there anything else you would like to add? 
 
CF: Tell Wal-Mart and Target that Indego Africa and our 500 artisan partners across four districts in Rwanda are ready when they are.

For more information, please visit www.indegoafrica.org.

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