High-profile European and American retailers are increasingly looking to East African countries, in particular Ethiopia, for garment manufacturing. Thanks in part to the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which gives duty-free access to the US for selected sub-Saharan African countries; American companies are investigating East African factories. If Ethiopia is to take full advantage of the manufacturing opportunities on offer the country will need to take it up a notch, writes Alexa Noel.
The textile industry is the largest manufacturing industry in Ethiopia. Although it is known as the political and economic hub of Africa, Ethiopia is a country with a rich traditional and artistic culture. With 60 garment factories and 15 textile mills in operation, the industry had a net worth of 41.1 million dollars as of 2015. The Ethiopian government is actively promoting the further modernization of the textile sector with the aim of attracting foreign investors.
These days local businesses are doing just that at every shopping district in Addis. Salem’s Ethiopia shop is among those businesses that are attempting to put Addis on the global retail map. Just ask Salem Kassahun of Salem’s Ethiopia in Addis Ababa.
“I always say, if you are a rich person, you use baskets for injera bread. If you are a poor person, you also uses it for the same purpose. So across the board everyone in Ethiopia uses these handy crafts. We use them in our kitchens and our bedrooms. The only difference is that now we are sharing it with the world,” Salem Kassahun, the shop’s co-owner and visionary designer, says.
Using textiles as the voice of cultural expression, Salem’s Ethiopia has established a market for Ethiopian textile products in Addis and around the world by working closely with Ethiopian weavers and artisans. Every piece of handmade jewelry, traditional loom and basketry holds an Ethiopian story, weaving together the people who make the crafts. Making Ethiopian jewelry has always been Salem Is passion. She works with weavers and craftsmen to create the designs for her brand on a daily basis. She has employed and inspired 55 people-some of whom are from satellite groups-to create sophisticated designs for over eight years.
Salem is proud of her business and prides herself on providing a good environment for talented and skilled people. In an open garden compound setting, customers browse while weavers make scarves and tablecloths on manually powered looms and women weave traditional baskets.
“It is all transparent here,” Salem says. People come from all over the world to connect with her business. They come to see how these crafts are actually made. And the artisans, weavers and basket makers are able to see who they are making crafts for.
The main objective behind Salem’s business was to provide dignity for people and highlight the Ethiopian handicraft. Much like many other textile industries, she describes what she does as making the skills of local Ethiopian artisans and craftsmen marketable and is proud to say that she “gave them dignity and power.”
In regards to the business, Salem sees a big difference in the textile and arts and craft market. My grandmother used and gardens the same textile that my daughter uses now because it’s beautiful and rich in its own merit; its cotton.” Some years ago, there was little interest in Ethiopia’s textiles, says Salem, the handicraft was there but the quality and design has evolved beautifully.
She recognizes Salem’s Design role in creating that market and competition for artisans and creative people and continues to set her place in the global market.
Local weavers at Shiro Meda
Just a few miles north of Addis center, more of Ethiopian locals are working hard on creating and selling Ethiopian traditional wear and accessories. Local vendors fill the street of Entoto road in hopes of catching the eyes of locals and tourists with traditional fabrics, dresses, shawls, jewelry and more.
Freweini Melkamu, a local Addis Ababan, visits Shiro Meda for times when she wants to buy a traditional dress for a church or a special event like a wedding.
“This is my favorite place that I will come to get traditional wear,” Frewini says. “The dresses and accessories are beautiful and are bright.”
Much of the beauty in the fabric is attributed to the Dorze and Haizo weavers on the second floor of the Entoto road factory institution. Weaving has been a way of life in Ethiopia for many years. In the old era, all the traditional clothing was made from hand-woven textiles.
One of the unique characteristics of traditional Ethiopian textile is the tibeb – a brightly colored decorative border and elaborate pattern around the edge of the dress. Today, weavers have incorporated tibeb into larger patterns for shawls, pillow covers, bags and basket items. all of which is found in Shiro Medea market.
Ethiopia is home to 221,848 weaving establishments according to a survey conducted by the Central Statistics Agency (CSA) in 2012. One of these establishments is the Dorze-Haizo institution in Shiro Medea. In this private institution sponsored by the government, 10 to 15 men operate the weaving to recreate local traditional styles.
The master weaver at the institution started working in the textile industry in 1962, at the age of 11. He began weaving as a vocational activity that was paid for by the government. He described his time in the factory as a professional time work and survival that he essentially loved to do.
“At the time, it was a cheap job, the design was not easy, and income wasn’t a lot but it was worth it and it is still now,” said the master weaver, as he stitched a new line of yellow thread onto the fabric.
All the workers had their head down as they unrolled the threads around the warped metal posts. Their hands created a zigzag pattern between the posts with a new section of color. Some workers indulged in small talk while others counted the stitches in the fabric.
The degree of difficulty as the master weaver described is easy, once you know the design. More complicated designs can take up to 10 to 15 days while simpler ones took up to 5-6 days.
“Each worker creates their own design and works at their own pace, said the master weaver. My design will be my signature and it will always be different from the other workers”
He emphasized that all the artisan weavers worked hard. On that day, they all worked diligently on one order for a church in the capital.
In many ways the style of the clothing has been changed and has made the market more competitive.
True to form, Addis is rapidly evolving with the textile market. The attraction of global markets is most evident in the expansion of retail stores within Addis like Salem’s Design and local artisans and vendors in Shiro Meda. This is what makes Ethiopia’s textile industry so unique. It encompasses a variety of authenticity, creativity and skill in its products.
Next year, the seventh edition of Africa Sourcing & Fashion Week will take place in Addis Ababa. Messe Frankfurt, one of the world’s largest trade companies, will organize its three textile fairs, Texworld, Apparel Sourcing and Texprocess at the Africa Sourcing & Fashion Week in Ethiopia. Addis will serves as a meeting place for garment manufacturers and the East African textile industry. There is no denying that there is growing international interest in Ethiopia’s old textile industry. Ethiopia is making its presence known to the world both in the local and international textile industry.
Ed.’s Note: The writer is on an internship at The Reporter.