Inspiring Mama and Multi-Talented Creative Director, Indego Africa | An Interview with Deirdre King
This month’s feature is a special one for me. I met Deirdre King at the beach in New Jersey in 2011, just a few months before my wedding. When we got to talking, she shared with me the work she was doing with Indego Africa. I immediately knew I wanted to know more and get involved in the powerful work they do to empower women artisans in Rwanda and Ghana through economic empowerment and education.
That night, I went right to their website, and bought beautiful handmade scarves Indego Africa had made in collaboration with JCrew - these would be one of the thank you gifts for my bridesmaids. I loved sharing with them the story of how the scarves were more than just beautiful pieces they’d wear in our freezing east coast winters. Since that night, Deirdre and I became fast friends, both getting married and starting families together within months of each other.
My support for the organization has transpired into joining their Regional Board for Indego Africa and sharing my admiration for the brand every chance I have. My friendship with Deirdre has transpired into forever friends sharing a passion for social good and mamas swapping stories and parenting tips. A true changemaker in our world, have a read of her story and work with Indego Africa below.
Since the project’s launch, we have successfully trained and partnered with 100 refugee women and counting. With Indego’s help, the women at Mahama have banded together to form their own artisan cooperatives, Akeza and Umuco. As two of our newest partner cooperatives, both Akeza and Umuco are handcrafting a variety of woven baskets and bags for Indego Africa’s #WithRefugees collection and securing long-term economic benefits for themselves and their families. As fully-registered cooperatives with the Rwandan government, these two groups have also been able to open their own bank accounts for their businesses and sell their handmade products at exhibitions across the country.
We are continually moved by their resiliency and determination to succeed and look forward to providing even more refugee women in the future with the artisan techniques and business skills they need to rebuild their lives with dignity and peace.
In conjunction with this program, we also launched a special photography collection last year to portray our refugee partners in a way that reflects courage and optimism in the face of their current challenges. When we started working with refugee artisans, we knew we were working on a special project but found that we struggled to tell the story of these women, their displacement and their present lives with just words. While in many ways their lives mirrored those of our other Rwandan and Ghanaian partners, their lives were touched and scarred in ways that were unique to them and to refugee communities worldwide. We wanted to tell that story in a way that went beyond pencil and paper, and decided that we had the tools to do it visually through beautiful photography portraits and the aesthetic vision of our company.
I traveled to Rwanda with our Brand Manager and Photographer to capture and create these images and it was an extremely powerful and memorable trip. To be able to return home and showcase these beautiful images that told the story of these women was a very proud moment and one that I’ll always remember.
(+ one more proud moment!) We launched a kids’ collection with Target in 2016 where we were able to shoot lots of my friends and family and seeing that come to life was extremely exciting!
TCB: I attended that photography event, and it was truly an experience to be able to see the visuals from these artisans’ lives firsthand...it really hit home for me. One thing I tend to hear from consumers is their doubt that a small act, such as a single purchase, can really be that impactful. What impact can a customer expect to make with the purchase of Indego Africa products?
DK: We are all about proving - and improving - our impact. Each year, we conduct a rigorous Social Impact Assessment and publish the results. We track key quantitative indicators - such as income generation, entrepreneurship, food security, and financial inclusion - as well as year-over-year qualitative data to measure our partners’ progress and identify areas for program improvement.
In addition to our annual Impact Assessment, we conduct detailed baseline and follow-up surveys for each and every education program we run, as well as onsite monitoring and evaluation at our artisan partner groups to make sure that lessons learned are being put into action. We are committed to making a long-term, sustainable impact in the lives of our partners, and we hold ourselves accountable to them (and our supporters!) every step of the way.
For each product bought, 100% of the profits are invested into our training programs. You can feel confident that your dollar is not only supporting the craft and the economic empowerment of the artisan who made it, but also the long-term educational empowerment of a community of artisans.
TCB: Let’s start with you sharing a bit on the background of Indego Africa…
DK: Indego Africa was founded in 2007 by father and son, Tom and Matt Mitro. The idea? Empower women artisans in Africa by showcasing their beautiful craft and investing in the power of education.
During the 11 years the Mitro family spent living in Africa, they were struck by the incredible talent and entrepreneurial spirit of female artisans. They were also struck by a glaring problem: these women, without access to markets to sell their goods or the education needed to run their businesses, were living in poverty with few ways out. Indego Africa was launched as a non-profit organization to address these issues of access and opportunity.
Since our founding, Indego’s mission has always been to help artisans lift themselves and their families out of poverty and become empowered businesswomen. We team up with groups of women in Rwanda and Ghana to sell products that are designed in New York City and handmade in Africa - using traditional techniques, local materials and genuine artisanal skill. All of Indego’s profits, along with grants and donations, are invested into business education and vocational training programs for the artisans who handcraft our products and the youth in their communities.
In 2007, we began by helping 30 genocide survivors in Rwanda form an artisan cooperative and produce handmade goods for export.
Today, we work with more than 1,100 artisans across 38+ cooperatives and artisan groups in Rwanda and Ghana. As demand for our products increases and our education programs expand, that number only continues to grow! We believe that women and youth around the globe have the capacity, creativity and determination to uplift themselves, their families, and their communities - all they need are the resources. One of those resources is fair, consistent income for their artistry.
TCB: Your focus has been predominantly on women. Why do you feel it important to focus on women education and empowerment?
DK: A woman’s success is her family’s success, her community’s success, her country’s success, and the world’s success. At Indego Africa, we know that women are not only more likely to invest money back into their families’ health and education, but also more likely to hire other women. By educating artisan women and providing them with global employment opportunities to create and sell handcrafted goods, we’re empowering generations of people across Africa.
At Indego Africa, we believe that education is the key to long-term empowerment and social change. That’s why we invest 100% of our profits from product sales, along with grants and donations, into business, technology, and vocational training programs for the artisans who handcraft our products and young people in their communities. Through our education programs, women and youth develop the skills they need to grow and scale their own enterprises, participate in the global economy and lead change in their communities. These programs ensure that our partners are not solely dependent on us for their livelihoods, but rather, are actively building the knowledge, tools and expertise they need to achieve financial independence and drive economic growth in their communities for years to come.
TCB: Indego Africa has made such strides in your mission over the years, coupled with creating a beautiful brand with really strong, creative partnerships. Is there one (or two!) most proud moments for you in your role as the Creative Director over the past 7+ years with Indego?
DK: In 2016, we launched a pilot project in collaboration with UNHCR to provide vocational and business training to 50 Burundian refugees at the Mahama Refugee Camp in Rwanda. The goal of this project was to help female refugees improve their livelihoods by building the skills necessary to participate in the global artisan economy.
TCB: Is there one piece of valuable advice you can offer The Cause Bar readers when they go to make their next purchase?
DK: There are so many great brands out there doing great things – it might be a bit more expensive to shop ethical at first, but when you dive deeper, not only are you supporting causes, missions and business structures that have positive impacts, but you are supporting craft and quality that will far outlast trendier, cheaper outlets. Take the time and research the companies you are buying from – many times you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that so many are already doing great things, and if they aren’t, that gap in their brand ethos will become more glaring each time you buy from them. Knowledge is power ☺
TCB: Is there a mantra, or words you live by that have helped you get to the place you are today?
DK: Yes! I really love this from Ira Glass, Host of This American Life: “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
TCB: That’s definitely advice I need to adhere to myself and certainly appreciate! OK, last question – and this might just be out of my own curiosity...you just had your 3rd baby, congratulations! You continue to be a powerhouse mama between work and family - how on earth do you juggle it all?
DK: I don’t! I rely a lot on help from my husband, our families and our wonderful babysitter. I also try to focus on work when I’m working and the kids when I’m not (full disclosure: way harder than it sounds and something I’m actively trying to be better at). It’s tempting to multitask and for good reason - women are the master multitaskers - but now that we have our third baby it’s just too much to juggle and I’m learning that everything suffers when it’s not given it’s deserved attention. For my own sanity, early mornings are my secret weapon. I wake up at 5am and spend an hour to myself every morning. It is my time to sit in a quiet house and decide what I want to spend my time on be it work, personal correspondence, reading the news, or just sitting in silence.
Enjoy 15% off all Indego Africa products now through the end of July using promo code “thecausebar“
To learn more about Indego Africa, please visit: https://indegoafrica.org @indego_africa
ABOUT INDEGO AFRICA
Indego Africa is a nonprofit organization that supports women in Rwanda and Ghana through economic empowerment and education. Founded in 2007, Indego Africa partners with female artisans in Rwanda and Ghana, and sells their handcrafted products worldwide, pooling the profits, along with grants and donations, to fund education programs for them in business management, entrepreneurship, literacy, and technology.