• 11.22.11

Mining Africa For Sweet Vintage Tees

Buy your ironic shirt from Repat, and you’re wearing some fashion that’s been to Africa and back. Double authentic, and helping put girls through school.

Here’s an unconventional way to fund a nonprofit: Go to Kenyan street markets, buy up hundreds of secondhand American T-shirts–preferably funny ones–and then re-import them to the U.S., selling them at a high premium.


Sounds crazy? Not that crazy. People love vintage T-shirts and Ross Lohr’s and Sean Hewens’ Project Repat has already made enough money from selling them to help five girls through school in Tanzania, and build a solar-powered computer lab in Kenya.

At the same time, they are also shining a light on hyper-consumption (measured by the number of unwanted T-shirts that get discarded every year), and the sometimes unhelpful consequences of “gift in kind” aid.

The T-shirts, which find their way to Kenya via thrift shops, cost $1 in the markets, but are worth $25 back in the U.S. As a mark of authenticity, Lohr and Hewens tag each one with a label showing where it came from. Hewens says he got the idea after encountering a Kenyan wearing a “I Danced My Ass off at Josh’s Bar Mitzvah” T-shirt.

Lohr and Hewens say the next stage of the project is to employ local people to make scarves and bags–from T-shirt odds and ends. As well as charity, they also want to spur more long-lasting development.

The question will be whether Project Repat will work so well if Lohr and Hewens are not on hand to pick the T-shirts. Their Kenyan partners may not have the irony-literacy required to select the most striking designs prized by the Urban Outfitters set back home.

But you still have to hand it to Project Repat so far: It’s not easy to create a flourishing business and charity based on used clothes, especially one that makes a comment about rampant consumerism at the same time.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.