Independence, Development, and Governance

December 10, 2012—As CEO of Indego Africa, an award-winning nonprofit organization, Conor French (C’03) helps women artisans in Rwanda achieve financial independence.

A self-described “straight white guy,” French thinks he is “a bit of a minority” in the global female empowerment movement, but his background is uniquely multicultural. Raised in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a town heavily populated by families from Cape Verde, French used to believe that he hailed from the West African island.

“I think its independence is younger than I am, so it’s a fairly new country,” French explained. “But I thought I was Cape Verdian until I was six years old, when I realized that my skin tone was slightly different from my neighbors’.”

While at Georgetown, French double-majored in English and history, focusing on pre- and post-colonial relations between Europe and Africa. In the summer after his sophomore year, he studied abroad in East Africa through the National Outdoor Leadership School, getting his first introduction to the continent that had shaped his hometown.

“I was always trying to reconcile growing up in a very diverse and, ultimately, very working-class, gritty, fishing-industry area with my experiences at some of the world-class educational institutions [I went to],” French said. “And when I say ‘reconcile,’ there was no conflict there. I just had very diverse experiences that I wanted to bring together.”

After leaving Georgetown, French earned a law degree and worked as a corporate lawyer for four years, giving legal and financial advice to companies with vast global connections. This line of work gave him a better understanding of social problems in foreign countries, which convinced him to join Indego Africa in 2010.

“In order to properly represent my clients, which were often businesses, I had to know their businesses inside and out, as well as or better than they did,” French said. “So, I had a business and operational expertise that I could then apply to a more market-driven model for solving poverty in East Africa.”

Founded in 2007, Indego Africa—a portmanteau of the words “independence,” “development,” and “governance”—is on a mission to stop generational poverty in Africa by helping women achieve higher income and better education. At this point the nonprofit is focused entirely on Rwanda, which has low but improving healthcare and literacy rates.

Indego Africa works with about 500 female artisans spread across 11 different cooperatives in Rwanda, opening lines of commerce through which the women can sell the jewelry and home décor they make with local materials like swamp grass, banana leaf, and cow horn. The group spotlights women, French said, because studies show that women are more likely than men to reinvest business profits into family and community.

“We give the women capacity-building training, training in financial management, literacy, computers, and public health, and opportunities for entrepreneurship,” French said. “The ultimate goal is sustainable economic independence for every artisan over the longer term.

“Revenue from product sales is what generates income for the women to raise the standard of living for themselves and their families and to put food on the table,” he continued, “but the training is the key piece. That will help them transform themselves into independent businesswomen who are capable of running their own self-sufficient and prosperous enterprises.”

According to French, Indego Africa hopes to someday expand from Rwanda into other African countries, such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Mauritius, and Burundi. But in order for its impact to grow, consumers and companies worldwide must work together with African artisans, “believing in” not only the products they buy and sponsor, but also in the fight for gender equality.

“The future of Indego Africa is to scale our impact without scaling our organization. It’s to take the momentum of a movement and to reach as many populations and as many people as we can,” French said.

“That doesn’t mean it has to be me, or anyone from Indego Africa. It means that we’re able to work collaboratively with all of the different stakeholders. It means we are improving the lives of people around the world through partnership, and taking advantage of things like consumer goods markets and other parts of the infrastructure to do that.”

—Brittany Coombs