MIT graduate student Milain Fayulu is on a mission. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Fayulu is telling, and selling, the story of his nation in the hope of aiding its people and transforming its economy.
For decades, the DRC has been hobbled by corruption and bloody civil conflicts. “I grew up with a sense of the DRC not being where it was supposed to be,” he says. “I wanted to know what it would take to make the country as wealthy and powerful as it once was.”
For Fayulu, the answer involves creating companies that can be clearly identified with Congolese society and culture, and using revenue from these ventures to address critical needs in the DRC.
He has found a way of springboarding his ambitious undertaking at MIT. Since his arrival in September 2021, he has been simultaneously pursuing a master’s degree in political science and developing a new enterprise with the support of a fellowship at MIT’s Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship.
Interplay of business and politics
Fayulu’s new venture is not his first go-around with startups. Right after graduating with a degree in economics from the University of Miami in 2015, Fayulu began Eben Cosmetics, a skin care company for people of color — an underserved consumer niche, he believed. To pay the rent, and help get Eben off the ground (his first infusion of money came from a $17,000 Kickstarter campaign), Fayulu began Flashstay, a real estate technology platform for short-term rentals in Miami.
“I think of entrepreneurship as problem-solving,” he says. “With good ideas, you can provide opportunities for people and create tremendous wealth.”
But in 2019, a cataclysmic episode compelled Fayulu to put these ventures aside. His father, a former executive with Exxon Mobil, ran as a presidential candidate in DRC elections. According to the official vote count and independent observers, Martin Fayulu won by a commanding margin, yet was denied the win by the country’s electoral commission. The Financial Times wrote that Fayulu might “be the most wronged man in world politics.”
For the younger Fayulu, this represented a turning point. “I realized that at the end of the day, everything was contingent on politics,” he says. “It was clear that if you can’t fix politics, it really doesn’t matter what business you’re in.” With what he called a “fraudulent” president in power, Fayulu decided to get a “bigger picture of policymaking, and learn how to make sure the rules of the game are fair.” He began studying for the GRE, and applied to MIT.
Advised by Evan Lieberman, the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa, Fayulu has been immersing himself in political theory and methodology. He was particularly taken with Lieberman’s class on ethnic politics. “We explored relations between different groups, and the impact of ethnicity on society,” he says, asking for instance why two African tribes get along in one country, but not in another. “We looked at historical patterns, and I discovered a lot of things I’d had strong opinions about were based on superficial knowledge; now I know I have to dig deeper for understanding.”
Fayulu’s thesis investigates how U.S. venture capital investment in Africa has concentrated in just a handful of nations (Nigeria and South Africa top the list). He hypothesizes that the presence of students from these nations in elite American colleges has created an invaluable financial network for African businesses. “There’s a first-mover advantage that just keeps feeding on itself, and ballooning.”
Mission-driven clothing line
One of the most monstrous dimensions of the DRC’s complex strife is the widespread occurrence of sexual violence, wielded by combatants, foreign and local, to terrorize. (One study by the American Journal of Public Health found that 48 women are raped every hour.) In 2018, DRC gynecologist and human rights activist Denis Mukwege won the Nobel Peace Prize with a call to end the use of rape as a weapon of war, and to offer survivors a way forward. It was a call Fayulu could not ignore, and the inspiration for his current passion project, the Congo Clothing Company.
“I had a burning idea to help this man, a hero doing God’s work on Earth,” says Fayulu. Noting that concern for Mukwege’s cause was fading just a year after his award and “that nothing was getting better on the ground,” Fayulu determined to find an effective and long-term method for raising awareness of Mukwege’s work, and raising funds to aid his efforts on behalf of rape victims.
“This is where entrepreneurship comes into play,” he says. “I came up with the idea of a fashion brand — a denim clothing line incorporating Congo-based designs with universal, border-crossing appeal — that would give survivors income and tell their stories.”
Fayulu’s goal is to sell Congo Clothing on web-based platforms, and to funnel a percentage of the profits to train survivors and fund their ownership of individual sewing machines. Fayulu intends to give them a measure of independence and a sense of self sufficiency. These women are currently under the care of Mukwege’s Panzi Hospital in Eastern DRC, an area of active civil conflict.
When customers receive their Congo Clothing package, they will learn the story of DRC’s violence but through a survivance framework, one of hope and resilience. “Buying this brand creates a narrative that can educate people,” says Fayulu. While he currently depends on a Colombian factory to produce the clothing line, he is currently partnering with an MIT D-Lab design project team to prototype future “made in Congo” items and he will be using his delta V opportunity this summer to move closer to his vision of manufacturing operation in the DRC. “I see this as a catalyst to building a robust textile industry in that part of the country,” he says.
The company is already on a high-velocity path: Fayulu’s startup team was invited to participate in the MIT delta v accelerator, a summer-long educational experience sponsored by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship that prepares early-stage firms for a full-fledged commercial launch.
“This is great validation for the entire team, because it means there are people who believe our project has the potential to be impactful,” says Fayulu. “Life as an entrepreneur has its ups and downs, and this stamp of approval from MIT gives me a chance to breathe a bit.”
Congolese to the core
After a childhood spent moving from one African country to another, and an education abroad, Fayulu’s loyalties have never strayed far from the DRC. Like his father, he believes his own story is inseparable from that of his country. Afflicted by decades (and centuries, if you count an era of Belgian rule) of governance by greed and brutal repression, the DRC needs a fresh start, politically and economically, says Fayulu. He hopes to champion this cause from Cambridge, and eventually from within Congo itself.
“I’m the only DRC citizen at MIT this year and I want to take advantage of this unique position, by serving as the first bridge between MIT and the DRC,” he says. Ultimately, he would like to erase the investment differential that favors more established African nations by recruiting more Congolese students to MIT and Harvard University. And with the mentorship and networking provided through the MIT delta v summer accelerator program, Fayulu envisions laying foundations not just for the Congo Clothing Company, but a flood of DRC-oriented businesses. “I would like to build a Congolese national conglomerate that provides jobs to local populations and that could be an ambassador for the country to the rest of the world,” he says.
He will also be fighting for a legitimate, representative government in the fast-approaching DRC elections, in the hope of banishing the kind of cronyism and self-dealing that defeats genuine economic revitalization. “This is an African story,” says Fayulu. “It’s going to be long and difficult, but that is the end goal.”