American Eagle Outfitters x Indego Africa - Rwanda

The Story August 2008

Little tin-roofed shacks dot the landscape in the sprawling NGO compounds surrounding our street in Kimihurura. You can hear the little neighborhood kids playing a game of football outside the gate. A group of us are kicking back on the garden porch of my friend, Taylor Krauss’ Voices of Rwanda house/office and chatting over Primus beers, while watching the late afternoon sun set over the thousand hills of Kigali.

Two friends of mine are telling me about a women’s cooperative called Amani ya Juu, Swahili for "Higher Peace," a sewing/marketing training project for Rwandese women in need. This project started in Nairobi in 1996 with three women, and has grown to over 50 women from many ethnic groups in Africa. My friends just had clothing made and after seeing the end results, I wanted to learn more about the project.

The next day, I hopped on the back of a moto-taxi and zipped my way over to the intimate workshop, located in the Gikondo area of Kigali. The women working there come from Congo, Burundi, Uganda as well as Rwanda. All of the cool products are made out of local African textiles (kitenge, batik, and tie dye). Tote bags, quilts, placemats, toys and jewelry are just a few of the treasures you will find here. In the back room, neatly stacked piles of fabric are available for custom-creations. As a fair-trade, self-sustaining project, generated income is used to provide support for the women and their families as well as the operational expenses at the center. None of the proceeds are used by expats assisting with the project.

During my search, I found a few meters of a beautiful Congolese red floral batik with bright green accents on a charcoal ground. I sketched a floor length one-shoulder tie dress inspired by the Mushanana, the Rwandan women’s traditional dress and explained it to the women in a mixture of poor French and charades, crossing my fingers that my request would be understood.  How does one say, “Cut on the bias” in Kinyarwanda?

The Mushanana is an elastic-banded long skirt, a colored tank top (usually--but not always--white) and a length of material tied over one shoulder... similar in style to a toga. It's not cheap, and you have to have it made. (Cost approx. $70-$100) Women can technically wear it whenever they want, but it’s typically worn for big occasions like weddings, funerals, baptisms, and church services. Within a week, my Made-in-Rwanda, Congolese couture dress was ready!

Luckily, I had a place to wear my new dress in Rwanda. I was invited to a friend's wedding negotiation ceremony. One of the interesting things about Rwandan weddings is that the groom is expected to pay for everything, from a cow to his bride’s wedding dress. The negotiation ceremony happens prior to the wedding between the two families. The fathers determine how many cows and goats the bride is worth. My friend and I watched all the traditional songs, dances and vibrant costumes whirl around us from our plastic chairs while sipping on the customary Fantas and Cokes.

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A year after I came back from Rwanda, I had a serendipitous introduction to Indego Africa. CEO, Ben Stone, noticed a Gisimba Orphanage fundraiser I was organizing.  He realized that besides our common interest and work in Rwanda, we both also live in the same apartment building in NYC! He facebook messaged me and we ended up having a great discussion on the roof deck about our projects.

Indego Africa’s operation is larger in scale than Amani Ya Juu, but shares the same philosophy. Indego Africa, which stands for INdependence, DEvelopment, and Governance, is an innovative social enterprise built upon the belief that women in Rwanda can lift themselves out of poverty. Indego Africa provides more than 400 Rwandan artisans with access to the global marketplace, enabling them to sell their vibrant handicrafts for a fair wage.

Two and a half years ago, my employer, American Eagle Outfitters, donated product (an unsustainable charity gesture), and shipped it to Rwanda during my sabbatical. After seeing the positive impact programs like Indego Africa, Amani Ya Juu, and donations like AE made on the Rwandan community, I decided to combine my interest in helping poverty stricken women become self-sufficient with my experience and contacts in the fashion industry. These seemingly innocuous concerns united to form The Supply Change – a not for profit that sources socially responsible goods and manufacturers who have previously lacked access to global markets and connects them with mainstream brands in an effort to forge long-term partnerships. These connections can help the fashion supply chain create products that are profitable, as well as purposeful.

Now, my involvement with sustainable products and services in Africa has come full circle. Indego Africa is currently collaborating with American Eagle Outfitters on developing a hair accessories collection for the Summer 2012 season which sets in stores in April. The Rwandans are lifting themselves out of poverty by producing marketable goods and selling them in AE stores.

Chrissie LamComment