The ultimate objective is for the women to achieve independence on three criteria: personal financial independence, independence from Indego Africa, and independent access to the export market.

Exclusive: Q&A With Matt Mitro, Founder, Chairman of Indego Africa, a social enterprise that works to help women in Rwanda achieve economic independence.

Indego Africa is a non-profit but operates as a business. Describe your business model?

The Indego Africa mission is to provide reliable income, develop job skills, and afford export market access to African women, with the goal of empowering these women and their businesses to be self-sustaining. IAP first enables women to meet their families’ basic needs, then successively adds skills that will solidify and supplement that income over the long-term. Indego Africa sets itself apart from both commercial handicraft exporters, which provide only income, and traditional non-profits, which focus only on skills or hand-outs, by offering an innovative hybrid approach. Indego Africa’s social enterprise model is also both replicable and transparent – institutional values that promote both sustainability and growth.

You guys are doing something unique here. As I understand, Harvard University has conducted a study on your business model. How did the university find out about Indego Africa?

Our introduction to Harvard Business School is a pretty typical story in the life of Indego Africa. My colleague Ben Stone was attending a HBS social enterprise conference and asked a provocative question of a panelist during a discussion session. The panelist chatted with Ben afterwards to follow up on his question, whereby Ben described the Indego Africa model and how it was responding to the issue he had raised. The panelist was a professor at HBS and immediately expressed interest in a case study.

What has it been like since you started this organization and when did you start?

The organization was conceived in the end of 2006, but our first operational model in Rwanda launched in August 2007. Since that time, it has been an absolute whirlwind. There is tremendous interest in our sector and our organization, as evidence by the HBS case study and other accolades we’ve collected, but the real work has been in attempting to scale the organization so that it can impact even more women.

How is that going so far and how do you measure your success?

The ultimate objective is for the women to achieve independence on three criteria: personal financial independence, independence from Indego Africa, and independent access to the export market. If it is successful, Indego Africa will have achieved the following life changing results for the women, families, and communities with whom IAP partners: (A) A ten-fold increase in women earning more than $1 per day (from 10 percent to 100 percent); (B) New high-value skills with which each woman can earn additional income in her community – whether in a cooperative, at another employer, or with her own business; (C) Households that are entirely free of hunger, inadequate housing, and school absenteeism; (D) Partner cooperatives that reach and service the local and export market without IAP assistance; (E) Partner cooperatives that are fiscally responsible and dynamic community centers; and (F) Indego Africa regarded as a major example and resource for social entrepreneurship in Africa.

Rwanda was recently highlighted by the World Bank as one of best places to do business in Africa. Considering the genocide that took place in the country in 1994 and the positive changes that are currently taking place, how would you describe the current cultural moment in Rwanda? How often do you travel to Rwanda?

We’ve found Rwanda to be an excellent place to do business. I’ve told others that it’s the perfect testing ground for development models. If you can’t succeed in Rwanda, there’s a problem with your model. In other African countries, development projects may fail due to lack of government support, underdeveloped legal regimes and systems, or general personal insecurity. None of those problems is widespread in Rwanda so an organization is given an environment to succeed. I travel to Rwanda about twice per year, usually for three to six weeks at a time.

Tell me more about the women you ‘re working for in Rwanda. How did your organization find these survivors. Did you approach the government before you could work with the women?

You can read all about the amazing women at Cocoki and Covanya cooperative on our website. All of them have survived the 1994 Genocide and are facing an uphill battle to take care of their families and communities, often after having faced significant trauma or the loss of their families. However, more importantly, these women are smart, creative, and strong so it is truly a joy to be around them. They’re budding businesswomen and entrepreneurs. We can all learn something from their open-mindedness and determination. We found these cooperatives on our own and they existed before we arrived, but we do sign partnership agreements with both the cooperative and local government so that everyone is aware of their commitments and obligations. The local governments have shown a remarkable amount of commitment.

You’re one part of a dynamic duo. Tell me about the other member, Ben Stone: How do you guys balance your friendship, and maintain goodwill within your team?

Ben and I met in college an unmentionable number of years ago (more than ten…) and have remained close ever since. He joined me on this journey progressively and then with a sudden flourish. Ben is an attorney like myself and was brought on Indego Africa as a pro bono client. He then took a trip with me to Rwanda, fell in love with our work, and asked his law firm to sponsor him for one year. They agreed and he’s been with us since then.

The better half of your question is how we maintain a friendship, with all the social support and good fun that involves, when we spend all of our time working together. We play ping pong, watch movies, and generally hang out much less often than we should. We don’t have any unusual issues in maintaining goodwill because we tend to see eye-to-eye on most things. When we don’t, we’re increasingly comfortable telling each other and working it out. Ninety-eight percent of the time it’s a joy to work with a close friend.

You left a lucrative profession, law, to pursue your dream. There are people who will read this that are sort of where you were before you left your job, questioning the status quo of life. What has been the most rewarding part since you started Indego Africa? Any frustrations and /or regrets?

There are always frustrations, but never regrets. It’s very challenging to start your own endeavor. There are financial risks and risks of failure, which you need to be able to tolerate. But the biggest risk is in your personal life. Like any entrepreneur, the conduct of your life’s work and passion can take over and put everything else on hold. It’s a real challenge – one that I continue to struggle with – to balance the needs of your organization (and the many Rwandan women counting on you) against your need to have your own life. That’s the biggest step for young professionals and budding entrepreneurs – ask yourself whether you’re ready to sacrifice and learn to adjust.

Do you have any mentor and what advice do you have for someone who wants to do what you’re doing now?

I don’t have a formal mentor, but my father has been an invaluable resource and guide through this entire process. Sometimes you don’t realize how nearby your mentor has been until you go through this type of formative experience. My father has worked in Africa for more than 30 years and is constantly bringing a fresh perspective to work matters – in addition for trying to look out for my own sanity. It’s nice to have a professional and personal mentor all in one. When you get started on this journey, you’ll want to look for folks you know who can support you and guide you but, as you get further along, it’ll be more important to recruit folks who really share your passion – who feel like this project speaks to them as much as it speaks to you. Those people will drive your success and you’re not relying on their relationship with you personally to keep them committed. They have their own independent commitment. When these people start materializing in the life of your project, you’ll know you’ve been successful.

Speaking of your dad, he is a board member of your organization. I’m curious to know as many of our readers reading this, what was his reaction when you quit your job and what do your parents think now?

They’re always looking out for my own personal health, but they’re very supportive of the endeavor. My mother has always been involved in social projects in Africa, so I definitely took inspiration from her.

Tell me about your collaboration with the New York law firm, Orrick?

Orrick has been a uniquely supportive partner of Indego Africa for more than two years. I like to think there’s some mutual benefit involved, but really they’re doing much more for us than we could do for them. In addition to loaning Ben to us (for two-plus years and counting) and sponsoring a law fellow as well (Vicki Burr), they’ve donated computers to set up a computing center at two cooperatives and have allowed us to use their full suite of resources (office space, support staff, etc.). They’ve really backstopped our operations and allowed us to be more efficient, which has carry-on effects for the women we support.

Organizations such as one-laptop per child provide computers and encourage literacy in technology among children living in Africa who otherwise wouldn’t have had access to computers. Indego Africa has expanded its program to include literacy in technology and business training among the women who work for you and their children. Can you describe how your program is empowering the women and their children?

The IT and business programs help teach the women we support the framework for a successful business, everything from managing their bank account to drafting their own budget in Excel. Both programs require frequent reinforcement to be successful, but there will always be an empowerment component that defies measurement. The women simply feel valued because these programs are run exclusively for them and they feel like equals to younger (and better-educated) Rwandans because they’re familiar with computers now. Best of all, they can now better serve and understand their children who, like children everywhere, are very familiar with computers.

How did you become interested in Rwanda?

We have a close family friend who is Rwandan and she gradually convinced us that we should pilot our model there. After our first visit, it was clearly the best place for us to work.

Since you became involved with helping to empower women in Africa, what do you think is holding Africa back from becoming part of the global economy power?

Rwanda has served as an example to me that leadership, good governance, and market-driven development can launch a country on a path towards potential poverty elimination. Of course, Rwanda’s success if far from assured, but they’re taking the necessary steps. If other countries in Africa took similar steps, I think those countries could position themselves better to capitalize on investment opportunities and the human capital potential of their own citizens. Such positive steps would also provide the moral authority necessary to encourage non-African countries and partners to remove or mitigate the remaining obstacles: poor infrastructure and unjust trading system distortions.

There are many NGOs working in Africa and other developing countries. What social programs would you like to see put in place to address poverty and hand-down in Africa?

I strongly believe that market-based approaches will provide the best long-term and sustainable solutions to poverty. In addition to the Indego Africa approach, we support organizations like SHE that are using singular solutions (hand-made banana fiber sanitary pads) to solve multiple problems at once (income-generation, recyclable materials, and women’s health).

Interview conducted and edited by Kemi Osukoya.

*This article was originally published in THEAFRICABAZAAR magazine in Summer 2010

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