15 February 2014

Ethiopia: Revolutionizing the Ethiopian Clothing Industry

The traditional weavers of Ethiopia are famous for their dexterity and skill, with all the knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Gradually designers and entrepreneurs are realizing the vast potential of this largely untapped resource.

Henok Reta met up with one such ambitious businessperson, and discovered more about the Ethiopian textile industry.

Working twenty-hour days and juggling fabrics in a series of swift skilled moves characterizes Ethiopian traditional weaving. As an ancient form of making clothes from cotton Ethiopians perform the process beautifully, despite its slower production capacity than the Asian model of textile industries. Although in many ways a tiresome business, traditional weaving has become the focus for many entrepreneurs, especially women, who are revolutionizing the fashion of traditional clothing.

Fikirte Addis is one such woman, and she has worked hard to become one of the country's most reputable designers. After graduating from Addis Ababa University in social psychology she turned her back on her education and became a designer. Her intuitive knowledge and interest in designing clothes for family and friends influenced her decision. "I became motivated to do it when I felt the pleasure of the people who wore my ideas," she said.

Her impressive attitude towards traditional clothing helped her to come up with a broad vision of mapping the route from her small design room to the weavers, yet it required a great deal of hard work and teamwork. She traveled to one of the country's most important villages for weavers, known as Chencha, a small settlement in the south near the tourist-friendly Arba Minch. "The idea I conceived seemed crazy for people around me," she remembers.

Going to Chencha exposed her to the industriousness of the traditional weavers, who are able to make 500 meters of fabric in 23 hours. The skills have been passed down through generations, and their abilities and speed encouraged her to maintain regular contact. Her first visit to the region also compelled her to change her business idea, and she decided to develop a model that preserved the wisdom of the people in the village.

She has three main missions, all under the trademark Yefikir Design. Business (selling), research and development, social and environment are the basic pillars that she hopes will boost her business in a responsible and far-sighted manner. "I always think that I have a responsibility and moral sense in what I am doing," she says. Partnering with governmental and non-governmental organizations in the area of child labor, she has contributed positively to the wellbeing of the children weavers. Fikirte points out that the main reasons for child labor in the weaving industry revolve around poverty, as families do not have enough money to provide food or education. As a result, many thousands of children flee villages in Chencha, Gamo Gofa, and Arbaminch to seek employment in larger towns and the capital Addis Ababa. They are subject to abuse from their employers, weaving day and night for small sums of money.

Fikirte's plan is to capitalize the families' economic power to sustain living in the locality. "Some of them are given sheds to work in, and they are better paid for the time they work efficiently," she explains. As an entrepreneur she employs people with different skills, and her only request is that they produce items fitting her designs. In four years she has become well known in the town, continually accessing the opportunities to sell and promote her business.

After winning an award at the Champion Product Approach Design Show Africa in 2011 she was able to attend African business development seminars in Japan last year. "Everything has contributed to my work. I have been lucky enough to experience the way other people are doing things," she says. Her desire to find women with excellent hand-weaving skills led her to Kuyu, a small town 57 kms north of the capital, where she coached them in making traditional eco bags.

Her recently developed online shopping experience is considered to be a result of her continual travels to the developed world, and adoption of the longstanding culture of work and business. "The money they make is good despite the place they work in which is small and narrower. What matters is the time and concentration they pledge to their duty," she explains.

The long-term plan is to boost her business and create a conducive environment for the skilled labor she has in Addis Ababa, and her partners in Chencha. She is also keen on exploring the potential market for traditional outfits, and in modernizing the designs to make them more fashionable. Moreover, furthering her experience and boosting the concept of women entrepreneurship will be her focus. "Women, including me, have not achieved success without a struggle to fulfill our dreams. And we deserve to be celebrated because things have changed a little bit now, all due to the hard work and dedication to make these things happen," she concludes.

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