BY K. BINKOWSKI | JULY 2016
Meet Deirdre King of Indego Africa
Working in partnership with global artisans to bring a unique line of fashion products to the international market is not without it’s challenges. We recently sat down with Deirdre King, Creative Director of Indego Africa, to talk about the challenges faced when building an international brand. From dropped calls and design details lost in translation, to pricing nuances and sourcing materials, we chatted about the social enterprise’s impressive growth and it’s exciting expansion from Rwanda to Ghana. If you’re looking for an honest story about creative problem solving, business transparency, and poverty alleviation — this is the one for you.
You have built a gorgeous and global line of clothing, accessories, and housewares. What was the inspiration behind Indego Africa?
In many ways our line is most inspired by the artisans that produce it! Each season, we look to their own personal style, the beauty of their countries, their skills and crafts, and the local materials they use. We encourage them to innovate with new products and new skills, and then we work backwards to fit that into our product line vision. On the brand side, we love beach culture, bright colors and patterns, a light and airy aesthetic, and anything that screams happy. Our lines end up being a combination of all these things that move us to smile, and we hope our enthusiasm ends up showing through with each and every product.
There are talented artisans all over the world. In your effort to alleviate poverty and empower women, why did you choose to work in Ghana and Rwanda?
Our founders chose Rwanda back in 2007 for a variety of reasons, including the Rwandan artisans’ mastery of traditional and beautiful basket-making, the country’s fair and transparent government and the need for social impact and poverty alleviation in the artisan communities. In 2014, when we decided to expand our full operations (income generation and education) to a second African country — our vision since the earliest Indego days — we did extensive research to figure out which would be the best fit for our model. In the end, we chose Ghana for several key reasons. First, Ghana’s rich cultural tradition of craft-making is not only beautiful and deep but is also different from (and yet complementary to) that of Rwanda. Second, Ghana’s infrastructure, like Rwanda’s, also allows for an ease of doing business that is necessary for our established supply chain and customer demand. Finally, and most importantly, there is a great need for social impact in Ghana. In its poorest regions, women on average earn less than 50 cents per day, with an almost 70% illiteracy rate and up to 50% living without any formal education.
Running an international business, especially in Africa, is no small feat. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced and how have you overcome them to build a truly international brand?
There are so many challenges that we’ve overcome and so many we still face today! Honestly, we still deal with bottlenecks and mini crises in our projects and day-to-day work. Shipping costs are extremely high and handmade production can at times be slow, both of which put pressure on us as suppliers for clients and as brand-builders for our own line. There is also often a lack of consistently quality materials and product fixings in the countries we work in. Sometimes seemingly inexpensive, simple things like zippers, woven labels, yarns or beads can add dollars onto our product costs because we have to import them into Rwanda or Ghana. Then there are general challenges in doing business — technological woes on our weekly team global calls, miscommunication or nuances lost in translation through email, and large-scale design projects done entirely through photos and scans (not to mention with printers that print colors differently). Our CEO is a master problem-solver and with her guidance, we’ve found that the best way to tackle these problems is to get off email and on Skype as much as possible, to anticipate and talk through every challenge and every solution as a team, and to always debrief on mistakes and successes after a big project.
Indego Africa is clearly committed to educating women as a means to long-term empowerment and social change. What impact can a customer expect to make in the lives of them women you work with?
We invest all of our profits from product sales, coupled with grants and donations, into education programs for the women who handcraft our products. Our courses range from skills-based vocational training, to financial and business management and intensive entrepreneurship training at our Leadership Academy in Rwanda. Most recently, we’ve been proud to highlight our newly launched Vocational Training Program, which matches young, unemployed women in Rwanda with artisan cooperatives where they receive technical training and mentorship. The trainees also participate in a Basic Business Training course to help them build the skills to succeed in the workforce. All together, these programs empower women to achieve economic security and self-sufficiency, and become confident entrepreneurs and leaders.
How has your product line grown and evolved over the years? Is it driven by market opportunity, customer demand, or artisan capacity and how do you balance all three?
We’ve seen our product line and brand grow and change immensely in the past (almost) 10 years. When we started we focused almost exclusively on simple, traditional home goods and accessories (baskets, coasters, tote bags). The artisans we partnered with were not used to sampling new products and working with different designs. When we decided to focus on building our brand and product line, it took almost a year for us to really figure out how production would work and how our partners’ own creativity, vision, and designs would fit into that process. Looking back, for the first five years our product line was driven exclusively by artisan capacity. Since focusing on growing our line and our team creatively, and working through the challenges involved in doing so, we have begun to rely much more heavily on market opportunity and customer demand, as well as on our own brand vision and aesthetic, to shape our product offering. There are definitely times where we shift our priorities, which means our line is always evolving. Instead of fighting against that and trying to fit ourselves into someone else’s model, we take pride in being very flexible in terms of design, production and marketing in order to make it all work!
We’re inspired by the potential for economic opportunity to alleviate poverty in rural African countries. Your international team is made of men and women from several different countries. Why did you choose to focus your artisan partnerships exclusively on women?
When Indego first began, we found that women in Rwanda, especially post-genocide, not only made up the vast majority of the Rwandan artisan sector but also had the greatest need for income earning opportunities. Further, women in the developing world on average invest 90% of their income in the families – a statistic we love! However, while Indego Africa is known for working with women in Africa, some of our newest artisan partner groups in Ghana are made up of men. Many of the ancient crafts in Ghana were at one time reserved for the Ashanti kings and chiefs — a distinctly male domain. While supporting women remains the core of our mission, we are also excited to work with these talented male artisans and to help them grow their own businesses and better provide for themselves and their families. We also hope to better integrate women into the artisan sector in Ghana, which we hope will both increase productivity and create a powerful multiplier effect across Ghanaian communities.
The fashion industry has historically been defined by human rights abuses and environmental degradation. How have you balanced ethical production, high quality designs, and competitive pricing?
We do our best to uphold all of those principals even if it means we fall short on what might be traditional (profit-driven) business norms. We firmly and unequivocally pay our artisans fair wages (that they help set themselves) and then work backwards to create our own pricing while keeping market value and design in mind as much as we can. Sometimes that means we sell with a very low margin on wholesale or have to launch something we love as retail only. Or sometimes we design a product we love — and see a real demand in the market for — but we can’t bring it to market because the quality or function of the product does not match up with the price we’d have to charge to not take a complete loss. The balance can certainly be challenging but if ethical production and fair wages are non-negotiable, like they are for us, the rest falls into place.