News / Africa

T-Shirts Return From Africa With Purpose

If an American woman was born in 1987, Project Repat thinks she might want this t-shirt back from Africa
If an American woman was born in 1987, Project Repat thinks she might want this t-shirt back from Africa
Nico Colombant

Castoff American t-shirts, which have flooded African markets for years, are starting to trickle back to the United States as part of a non-profit initiative spearheaded by two young American social entrepreneurs.

American Sean Hewens said he recently was stuck in a traffic jam in Nairobi, Kenya, when he saw a t-shirt worn by a rickshaw pusher promoting a 2006 bar mitzvah for a teenager called Josh in California.

Hewens became curious about how that t-shirt had traveled so far, and found out many castoff t-shirts from the United States end up being sold in markets across the developing world.

T-shirt turnaround

"You know a t-shirt that means something specific, such as Josh's bar mitzvah, in one place, and then these t-shirts go to the Goodwill and they get sold overseas and resold. From a cultural perspective, things get all mixed up and turned around."

So Hewens decided to turn some of these t-shirts around another time in what he calls Project Repat, as a side project to finance his expanding technology and cultural non-profit called Smallbean.

Retro, funny, ironic, sports-themed, place- and event-specific t-shirts are bought in African markets, cleaned up, stamped with date and location and the Project Repat logo, and sold back to U.S. consumers for $25, of which $20 goes toward funding non-profits.

Using social media

Hewens said he was amazed by the social media-fueled positive response, not only from buyers, but also from volunteers who are buying t-shirts in Africa and donating them to Project Repat.

This shirt worn by a motorcycle taxi driver in Makeni, Sierra Leone, may qualify for repatriation, but Project Repat insists they won't take a t-shirt off anyone's back
This shirt worn by a motorcycle taxi driver in Makeni, Sierra Leone, may qualify for repatriation, but Project Repat insists they won't take a t-shirt off anyone's back

"The response that we have gotten from Project Repat, I think it had something to do with the t-shirts, I think it had something to do with this really authentic story behind it," he said.

"But I will be honest, we have just been absolutely flabbergasted by the response and definitely in a good way."

Hewens said so-called t-shirt agents - or "repatriots" as he also calls them - will never take a t-shirt off someone's back, but only buy them in markets.

Supporting local markets, non-profits

The other initiator of the project is Ross Lohr. He heads the Newton Tanzania Collective, which helps schoolchildren in Tanzania and connects them to students in the United States.

Lohr says "Project Repat" also reinforces the meaning of each t-shirt. "Each shirt is incredibly unique. It has a story to tell and in a way it is sort of a double hero because it is supporting local markets in places like Kenya and Tanzania, while at the same time it is supporting non-profits."

And he said the t-shirt return process has proven to be a very effective way to raise funds.
"It is tough to be going back to your donor base all the time, the same donors trying to secure funding," said Lohr. "For us, this was really a way to leverage a new demographic, philanthropy and fundraising. You need to find a revenue-generation model, you need to find a way to get new people interested."

The two Boston residents also have used an online fundraising platform to make a documentary movie. Filming is due to begin later this month in Nairobi, when they aim to delve deeper into the stories of the t-shirts and the people who wear, sell, buy and recover them.

You May Like

Afghanistan, Pakistan Leaders to Hold Icebreaking Talks in Paris

Two sides are expected to discuss ways to ease bilateral tensions and jointly work for resumption of stalled peace talks between Afghan government and Taliban officials

Corruption Busting Is Her Game

South African activist is building 'international online community of thousands of corruption fighters'

Former SAF Businessman Gives Books, Love of Reading to Students

Steve Tsakaris now involved in nonprofit Read to Rise, which distributes books in Soweto, encourages lower-grade primary school students to read

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs