Ethiopian-made shoes launch at Paris department store, demonstrating potential of Made in Africa
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African-made trainers arrived at the popular BHV department store in Paris this weekend. Sawa Shoes are fashionable sneakers 100 per cent sourced and manufactured in Ethiopia, representing the potential of the Made in Africa story and the impact manufacturing could have on African economies. RFI spoke to Mehdi Slimani, Sawa’s founder.
Could you describe your product? You describe yourself as an activist brand, could you elaborate on that for us?
Made in Africa is our statement. Sawa is an activist brand because we bet on Africa, we all know and we all say that Africa is the future, but nobody’s moving. So with Sawa we took the decision to buy African materials and to process them on site to make finished products.
Why did you choose Ethiopia as your manufacturing base?
To tell you the truth Sawa is not born in Ethiopia. Sawa was born in Cameroon, but unfortunately we failed in Cameroon because of lots of problems - corruption in Doula and we had a very difficult logistics. We used to buy from Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. So we failed in Cameroon and we moved to Ethiopia. So far, so good, I would not say it’s that easy to work in Ethiopia, but it’s easier than in Cameroon. You can find everything on site, the leather, etc. Leather is 90 per cent of the value of the shoes, so everything is available in Ethiopia.
What happened in Cameroon?
The problem in Cameroon is the harbour. We used to buy leather, rubber and laces outside of Cameroon and then when it reached Cameroon you have to clear it through customs. The problems started here, you have to pay money under the table otherwise nothing will leave the harbour.
You’re talking about bribes?
Yes, bribes to the people working at the harbour, customs. Bribery is the only way to do business in Cameroon.
The government didn’t help you?
No, they didn’t care at all. I remember once I wanted to meet the head of the harbour, he gave me maybe 10 meetings and he didn’t come. They don’t care, they all know how it is in their country, but they don’t care.
In Ethiopia it’s better then? It’s easier to do business?
Yes, it’s paradise on earth! It’s really easy! I would not say it’s easy, but you have everything do be successful. You can rely on politics. You can rely on Ethiopian people to make it happen. There is really a will to make it happen and a will to go forward, it works. The country has a long way to go, but they’re going in the right direction.
There’s often criticism about the Ethiopian government – the lack of respect for human rights, the lack of a free press – does that concern you?
No, not at all. It’s not my point, you know I making shoes in Ethiopia, I have decided to go there, and nobody asked me to come. So when you go, why should I start criticising? I didn’t spend time researching. Me, I know what happens in my factory. I can look everybody in the eyes and say, ‘the shoes are clean, they are made in good conditions, they’re very good quality’.
Was it easy to find the skilled workers you needed in Ethiopia?
Yes, Ethiopia used to make shoes. Then you have to teach them our quality expectations, which are maybe a little bit different than the local market. But it was easy. Now, what is complicated is making sure the skilled people stay with us.
What are the advantages of manufacturing in Africa as opposed to Asia? Because many garments and shoes are made in Bangladesh, China or Indonesia.
When we started the project in 2009 I haven’t created a benchmark with China, Europe, etc. No, my point was to make things in Africa. I knew it was difficult and my project is not a reaction to ‘Made in China’ or ‘Made in Bangladesh’, its action for Africa. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even think about going to China, Italy or Portugal, my point was to go to Africa.
What difficulties do you face?
We don’t face any difficulties, it’s very easy. As long as you have good documents, in one day you can clear everything through customs. You just have to have the documentation and respect the law. You can even bring a cheque because you know in advance the amount you have to pay. There are no surprises, nobody who will ask you, ‘if you want to go faster, you have to pay’. It’s very smooth.
Is the company profitable?
We started being profitable last year. We are not super profitable, last year we broke even. And I hope that it will last.
How does manufacturing in Ethiopia benefit the local population?
You feed the country with orders, with money, with hard currency. You feed the country with new products or new quality standards. For instance, now I think our factory in Ethiopia is perhaps the best factory as far as sneakers are concerned. They add new products to their catalogue, new orders mean new jobs. And behind the factory there are some families, you know it’s a way to develop lots of things outside of the factory.
Why did you decide to base the headquarters in France and not Ethiopia?
Maybe it was for commercial development. We want to break into the fashion world, so you have to be in Paris. I don’t think the buyers would come to Ethiopia. It’s easier to reach the buyers in London, Milan, New York. It’s really easier.
How are Made in Africa products received in the fashion world?
If the product is valuable it makes a difference. When you go to buyers and you say, ‘I have Made in Africa products’, they say, ‘but I want to see the products’. The products come first, and then Made in Africa, the story around the product, comes second. It’s an asset, but your product has to be solid.
What challenges does Africa face with the move towards manufacturing?
They have to compete with Asian factories, Asia sets the level. They will attract investors if they can reach Chinese level of quality, of organisation, to make volume.
Are there any of your competitors who are looking to move to Ethiopia or Africa?
We were the first. I know that fast fashion is going there, they are looking for super profitability and today Africa, Ethiopia does not offer super profitability. It can offer profitability but not super profitability. That’s why a lot of people, they prefer to wait. Ethiopia is under the radar, but they say maybe we should wait a little bit and go there later.
What’s your goal five or 10 years down the line, where do you see Sawa shoes in the future?
I hope to see Sawa as a key player. I’m not saying I’m going to compete with Nike or Adidas. I would like to compete with the level under them. This is my objective and I would be, as an African, very happy to develop Sawa in Africa, in African markets.