Ethiopia is one of the world’s fastest-growing countries and one of the reasons for its dramatic growth is the unprecedented spurt of entrepreneurship that has gripped the nation. Ethiopian women are now combining their long-standing tradition for niche businesses with modern practices to become a driving force in the country’s growth.
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu
At just 32, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu (right)has been collecting a number of young entrepreneurs awards for soleRebels, the shoe business she set up in 2005 and the first ever footwear company to be Fair Trade certified. From very modest beginnings in the neighbourhood where she grew up in Addis Ababa, she has built up a successful brand and is now exporting worldwide through major retailers, as well as selling online. “soleRebels began in 2004 as an idea: to bring jobs to our community, Zenabwork, a small village in Addis, where our family and neighbours were struggling to make ends meet,” she explained. “We wanted to harness the community’s incredible artisan skills and channel them into a sustainable, global, fair trade footwear business.”
For her, shoes were an obvious choice because she could use local skills and materials 100% produced in Ethiopia. Her idea was to recreate the traditional “selate” shoes made from recycled car tyres, but update the style to make a fashionable, yet alternative product.
“In fact it was the shoes the rebels wore when fighting the invading forces; they kept Ethiopia as the only African country not to have been colonised,” she added. Unlike the generation just before her, Bethlehem never felt the need to leave her country. She was still a child when the repressive Derg regime fell in 1991, and therefore was less affected by it. Twenty years previously, in the 1970s, a whole generation of Ethiopian left in search of a better life in Europe or America. Today, they are referred to as the Ethiopian Diaspora.
Now a few years later, Bethlehem has succeeded in her shoe venture by combining attractive Ethiopian artisan skills with the age-old recycling tradition that exists in the country. The soles are genuinely made from recycled car tyres, while the body of the shoe is made from pure Ethiopian leather or Abyssinian hemp woven by her own artisans.
She pays a lot of attention to the quality of the manufacturing process. “All our artisans are trained directly in-house, they make each pair by hand, one at a time, making it a truly zero-carbon production process,” she added. The end products speaks for itself: the shoes are attractive, fun and comfortable, making them winners in the market.
She has plans to increase her workforce by 1,000 full-time employees in the next couple of years, from a current figure of 100 staff, who can already produce about 300 pairs of shoes or 500 pairs of sandals per day.
“We also want our workers to be well paid so they can truly improve their livelihood. We pay them about three times the industrial average,” she said. She didn’t disclose the company’s current turnover and profit margin, but she said she has plans for a global retail roll-out in 2015, which should add $12m to $15m in revenues to the company.
Selamawit and Saba Alene
Just like Bethlehem, Selamawit and Saba Alene, the two sisters who set up the first ever art gallery in Ethiopia, decided not to leave their country in search of a better life overseas. Today, they run the St George’s art gallery, the most prestigious gallery of Ethiopian art and antique furniture in the country, and have just opened a sister gallery in the US.
“Ethiopian traditional paintings and furniture have become increasingly more popular with US customers, that’s why we decided to open a second gallery rather than export individual items from here,” explained Selamawit Alene (right), in the Addis gallery. Their story started against all odds about 20 years ago, just after the fall of the Derg regime, when they were fresh out of college. Saba was passionate about Ethiopian furniture and art and started to restore old pieces, with a view of selling them.
“At the time, everybody thought she was mad to go into that venture. Ethiopia was just coming out of difficult times, furniture and paintings were considered as superfluous objects people didn’t need,” explained Selamawit.
“However, gradually people’s views changed and they started to appreciate art for art’s sake again. The business took off and I partnered with my sister.”
Saba began to design her own furniture line based on traditional Ethiopian style, which has since become very popular due to the recent restriction on sales of antique furniture to protect Ethiopia’s heritage.
The two sisters also diversified into contemporary paintings, representing local artists. Today they boast an impressive list of clients. The gallery’s location, very close to the upmarket Sheraton hotel, also helps draw the crowds to their beautiful store, located inside an old 1930s house.
“The house used to belong to an Ethiopian aristocrat who had lost everything. He was living in one of the rooms while the rest of the house was decrepit. But, we loved the feel of it and decided to rent it and fully renovate it. That’s the gallery today,” she said.
However, they are now running out of space and are looking for an additional location in the capital, which is not easy to find as many of these old houses are being demolished to make way for high rise buildings. “We need a space with a lot of empty white walls for the paintings, and that’s not so easy to find in Addis,” she concluded.
Inspired by the Alene sisters, Hiruth Gougsa set up her own business making handbags in Ethiopia, which she sells in her attractive ethnic store in the old airport area. “St George’s gallery is my model, I really like their concept,” said Hiruth.
After years of running a catering company, which she still owns but no longer manages, she decided to go for her passion for handbags and clothes. Since she took the jump in 2006, her label, MELA, has become a benchmark in Addis for handbags and accessories.
In her view, it is not surprising that women entrepreneurs are flourishing in Addis. “There’s always a tradition of women running small businesses such as corner shops or food ventures, so we’re taking that tradition a step further,” she explained. “Men tend to run large businesses or corporations, whereas women focus on niche ventures.”
Mitslal is not the only entrepreneur to think about tourism. Amakeletch Teferi (top), another woman entrepreneur who runs a successful chain of café/bakeries in Addis, is building a new resort-hotel in Adama, a smaller and warmer town two hours outside Addis, where city dwellers go for the weekend.
Initially trained as a agronomist, Amakeletch is also running La Parisienne, the still expanding chain of café-bakeries she set up with her family 15 years ago. “It all started when I realised that my mother was going across the city to buy the bread she liked, so I suggested to set up a bakery nearby. At the time, my brother was working in France so he learnt to bake bread and make croissants, that’s how it all started,” she said. Today, the family owns four shops and is planning to open a fifth one in town.
Mitslal Kifleyesus-Matschie (above right), of the same generation as Hiruth Gougsa and the Alene sisters, agrees that women have always run small businesses to complement the family’s income while raising the children. After a number of years working abroad, she decided it was time to come back to Ethiopia and work for her country and her people. She, however, doesn’t consider herself ,part of the Diaspora. “I was educated here for the Ethiopian market, it’s my initial job in the defence sector which took me to Europe,” she explained. So five years ago, she set up ECOPIA, a company making organic preserved food and cosmetics. “Our core principle is to work with communities of farmers in rural Ethiopia,” said Mitslal.
Among its most popular products, ECOPIA sells organic fruit jam, soap bars and cosmetics using natural ingredients available locally, thanks to Ethiopia’s amazingly rich biodiversity. The company provides extensive training to the farming communities they work with, emphasising the quality of the products. “We help our farmers with everything: for example, during the plum season, we explain to them when is the best time to pick the plums to get the maximum amount of sugar in the fruit,” explained Mitslal. “The farmers understand very fast, because for them having sweeter fruit means buying less sugar to add and hence saving money.”
In her view, the time invested in training is paying off in product quality and improved livelihoods. ECOPIA has trained about 3,000 farmers and extension workers all over the country. “According to a government assessment, we are the company that gives the most knowledge to farmers outside Addis, we bring knowledge and techniques into the villages,” she added, “and all our products can be traced back to their origin.”
However, Mitslal feels it is time to take the company to the next stage and diversify into areas such as ecotourism. Her plan is to develop good-quality accommodation in rural areas to ensure local communities also benefit from the ongoing development in tourism. “There’s a need for more accommodation in Ethiopia, so we would like to see rural communities truly benefit from it too,” she said.
Many other women entrepreneurs are just as dynamic. Sishu, a young woman in her 30s has set up with her partner a new concept of restaurants in Addis, which has since become one of the most popular eateries in town. Everything in the restaurant is made for customers to feel at ease and all the food served is organic and home made.
“We want people to come to enjoy the place and relax, not only to have a quick lunch or dinner. So everything is designed to make them feel at home,” explained Sishu. “If they want to sit in the lounge with their computer, they can do so as long as they want, we won’t ask them to eat or drink, it’s their place and space.”
Many more women, whether jewellery designers, contemporary art gallery owners or simple running alternative bed and breakfast businesses, are contributing to the renewal of Ethiopia and its capital Addis Ababa.