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.