Matt Mitro: A fair trade bracelet, sold at Polo Ralph Lauren

    Matt Mitro, president and chairman of the board at Indego Africa. Photo by: Ben Stone

    With the success of Indego Africa, founder Matt Mitro has been a favorite speaker at international conferences focused on social entrepreneurship. The former lawyer and his award-winning nonprofit have brokered partnerships that enable Rwandan women artisans to sell their fair trade handicrafts in high-end U.S. retail stores.

    Mitro is one of today’s most influential development leaders under 40 in London. He and his peers have inspired change that transcends borders.

    Devex is recognizing 40 of these young London-based trailblazers in international development. They are social entrepreneurs, government leaders, development consultants, business innovators, advocates, development researchers, nonprofit executives, philanthropists and investors.

    We asked Mitro about his leadership and vision for development cooperation in the years to come. Here’s what he said:

    As founder of Indego Africa, how were you able to gain the trust of Rwandan partner cooperatives?

    We gained trust in Rwanda primarily by establishing early on our seriousness of purpose, willingness to listen, and commitment to transparency. Our leadership team spent lots of time interviewing the women we supported so that we could understand their lives and challenges. We then ensured that we were providing programs and income frequently and consistently, so they knew that we would not be leaving them behind under any circumstance.

    We could make that promise because we started with small groups of women first and only expanded when we had complete confidence in our long-term prospects.

    Lastly, we practiced extreme transparency with our artisans. We told them about our pricing structure, showed them what the market looked like, and opened up about ourselves personally. When Indego Africa succeeded, the women shared in our success. This bred trust.

    How did you convince large, high-end international retailers to join the initiative?

    Convincing large, high-end retailers to trust Indego Africa with their business easily ranks as our pre-eminent commercial achievement as an organization. Our clients tend to deal with thousands of competing vendors, many of whom have been in business for decades and all of whom could match (or beat) our pricing.

    The Indego Africa team needed to convince these skeptical buyers that we could deliver a high-quality, fashionable product — on-time and at a competitive price. This often meant getting them to see the long-term brand benefit to associating with Africa conceptually and with our specific “social” business model.

    Our argument only gained momentum after we had a couple small, high-profile successes: starting with placements in museum stores and then Polo Ralph Lauren and Anthropologie. These first partnerships came together through long bouts of networking with buyers and designers, as we did not have such connections when we started. Once other brands saw our previous successes, the doors simply began to open wider and more quickly.

    How do you see yourself contributing to global development in the coming years?

    I hope to contribute towards development in upcoming years by focusing more on thought leadership in the ethical fashion industry and providing resources to other small businesses across the African continent. I have taken on a more strategic and supervisory role at Indego Africa since moving to London.

    Consequently, I spend more time thinking about key personnel retention, larger product directions, scholarship (including writing a book chapter), and information technology and infrastructure. Having proven the possibility of the Indego Africa business model, I hope to play a larger role in encouraging other African entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs.

    Read more about the Devex 40 Under 40 International Development Leaders in London.

    About the author

    • Eliza Villarino

      Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.