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Global Matters: From Raymond to Rwanda

Opinion

Global Matters: From Raymond to Rwanda

What do you call a non-profit organization that educates and empowers women in a strife-torn country, sells their crafts and artisanal works using Amazon.com's bar coding, warehousing and distribution systems, pays the women 50 percent up front, and then shares 100 percent of the profits with them?

A skeptic might call such an organization a myth, but you should know that this non-profit not only exists, it is thriving. It is called Indego Africa, and it has a strong Maine connection.

Founded in 2006 and focused on complete transparency in everything from its fundraising to its administration, from the education and training it provides to its profit-sharing, Indego Africa is a different kind of non-profit. It is a pioneer in the emerging field of social enterprise.

Rather than merely accepting donations and determining how best to allocate them, Indego Africa uses the proceeds of sales to provide entrepreneurial training to women in four Rwandan cooperatives; it assists the women in navigating export regulations, facilitates goods getting to market, passes along 100 percent of the profits from sales and empowers the women themselves to make informed allocations of the funds to local job-training programs and capacity-building.

It posts on its Web site and makes publicly available not only its founding documents, but its strategic plan, its organizational policies and its Internal Revenue Service filings. Quite simply, Indego Africa strives to make a difference not only in the lives of the women with whom it works; Indego Africa strives to change the way aid is delivered to persons in developing nations.

"Indego," which is a contraction of the organization's three pillars – independence, development and governance – is the creation of an extraordinary father and son team, Tom and Matt Mitro. Following a successful career with the Chevron Corp., Tom Mitro embarked on a second career of giving back to the people and states whose natural resources have not always translated into solid infrastructure and proper development. Matt, his son, after a stint as an international finance attorney, embraced his father's impulse to support capacity-building in Africa and the two created the business model for Indego Africa.

Now, all of this good work might have passed largely unnoticed here in Maine but for the involvement of another enterprising attorney named Ben Stone. Stone, who grew up in Raymond and attended Washington University in St. Louis before enrolling in law school at New York University, appeared headed for a white-shoe law practice on Wall Street before he had a Mitro-induced epiphany.

After observing what his good friend and undergraduate classmate Matt had undertaken, he approached the management of his law firm, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, and impressed upon the firm the importance of social enterprise not only as an emerging field of law and business, but as an opportunity for the firm to contribute tangibly to improving the condition of Rwandan women.

Orrick agreed to pay Stone a portion of his salary even as he devoted himself full-time to Indego Africa, which he now serves as senior vice president and general counsel. Orrick has also contributed laptop computers and other tools that women in the Rwandan cooperatives are now learning to utilize as they acquire business skills in the course of the training provided by Indego Africa.

It's all part of the virtuous circle embodied in the Indego Africa business model. The women craft the goods and learn how to get them to market. The goods are sold in museum stores and on-line through Amazon.com. The profits are passed through to the women and a portion goes to further training and education so that additional business skills – marketable business skills – are acquired, all of which helps to transform the local economy as well as the lives of the women directly involved.

Stone and Mitro have the kind of vision and passion that can, if supported and sustained, make a difference in the world.

After all, there are many worthy organizations doing good work and helping to improve lives, but few are adopting as holistic an approach to production, administration, sales, export, distribution, profit sharing, education and training, all within the framework of complete organizational transparency. With any luck, Indego Africa will change the way development organizations operate.

But even if Indego Africa remains the exception to the rule, that's probably enough for the Rwandan women and the communities served by the organization. The skills these women are learning, along with the profits they are earning, are enough to begin to change lives.

That's not a bad legacy for two young social entrepreneurs to leave behind.