After years of working in East Africa, I’d seen my share of fantastic T-shirts, worn proudly by the Kenyans who owned them without the faintest hint of irony. Together with the founder of another cash-strapped nonprofit, we set out to find the source of these secondhand T-shirts that dominated the wardrobes of Kenya. Turns out, the mecca was a massive market called Gikomba in the heart of Nairobi, ground zero for the thousands of palettes of stuff that is cast off from the United States and ends up for sale in poor countries like Kenya. We bought a handful of the best T-shirts and brought them home to friends and family in the States. That’s when a crazy idea occurred to us. Could we start a social enterprise that 'repatriated' T-shirts from Kenya, selecting only the finest vintage of hipster styles and reselling them in the United States?
The business model was simple enough. We bought T-shirts in Kenya for about $1 and sold them for $15 back in North America. All profits were donated to the two nonprofits that we were running. We launched a website and it went viral just a few days after launch. We sold out of our first batch of t-shirts in minutes, then mounted a successful Kickstarter campaign to bring 500 more t-shirts back from Nairobi. Project Repat was off to the races! The company is still thriving today, although with a different business model that no longer involves the hipster T-shirt markets of Kenya.
I was the co-founder of Project Repat and our creative director. I was also our chief T-shirt buyer in Kenya. Ultimately I had to step aside from the company when I took the job at IDEO.org.