Something Beautiful from Ethiopia
The blossoming of an international partnership for leather bags and social good.
On the popular shopping site of Magnolia Market — skyrocketed to fame by the hit HGTV show “Fixer Upper” — a photo of an elegant leather tote hanging on a rustic wooden ladder draws shoppers’ eyes to what is known as “Joanna’s Favorite Bag.” Joanna, of course, refers to Magnolia founder and design superstar/TV host Joanna Gaines, but the story of just how the simple tote became her go-to bag — and how it found its way onto the arms of countless Western shoppers — begins in a rather unexpected location: Ethiopia.
It all started when, on returning to Ethiopia after living in the U.S. in 2004, Yamerote “Yami” Mengistu sought a way to incentivize Ethiopia’s educated but unemployed women to stay in their country. Her solution? Start a company that employs a mostly-female, at-risk workforce. Her product? Leather goods, chosen due to the high regard held for Ethiopian leather by foreign entrepreneurs.
“I thought, if someone from overseas is saying that Ethiopian leather is some of the best they’ve seen in the world, and if the government is supporting it, let’s see what I can do with it,” says Yami. “Plus, the price doesn’t hurt. Ethiopian leather is very affordable.”
To reflect her desire to make “something beautiful from Ethiopia,” Yami chose the company name of Rosa Abyssinica and made its logo a stylized version of its namesake: the five-petal Ethiopian rose. With a staff of only two, both working from home, the company started production with the simplest item to make: leather bracelets. When those proved a major success at the Artisan’s Bazaar — a large shopping event of Made in Ethiopia products held twice a year in Addis Ababa — Yami felt encouraged to dream even bigger.
Purses came next. When Yami’s friend Kirsten Dickerson — founder of the Texas-based ethical fashion brand Raven + Lily — came to Ethiopia in 2012, she took an immediate liking to the first few sample bags. Kirsten already had a business partnership in place in Ethiopia with the Entoto Project, a jewelry training program for HIV-positive women, and she suggested a future similar partnership with Yami’s Rosa Abyssinica to make the bags.
The following year, the duo officially launched a partnership with one bag designed to appeal to a Western market. When that bag sold out — and orders continued to pour in — Raven + Lily hired a designer who had previously worked for international fashion brands Tory Burch and Kate Spade, and the Rosa Abyssinica workforce grew to 40 women, all based in Addis. Now, in addition to direct orders from Raven + Lily, the company also services partnership orders from Magnolia, Joanna Gaines’ home accessory store.
As a personal friend of Kirsten, Joanna had asked her to send some items to possibly feature on the 2013 pilot of “Fixer Upper.” Among the items Kirsten sent, Joanna picked that first bag Raven + Lily created with Rosa Abyssinica. “We had no idea how big it would get,” says Kirsten. “It’s a very simple bag that appeals to a lot of people,” adds Yami. Even in 2017, the tote remains popular, continuing to sell out online and via wholesale.
“People want to buy from socially responsible companies,” says Yami. “It makes them feel like they are making a difference, knowing where it came from and that it makes a difference in somebody’s life. And the women are also proud of what they’re doing.”
The rise of Ethiopian leather
“Imperfectly beautiful with intention,” is how Kirsten describes the worn-in look of the leather they use for their bags. Keeping in line with their ethical principles, the partnership sources its leather from an Ethiopian tannery that strives to be eco-friendly, using 100-percent vegetable dye and recycling its water — another factor, besides the design quality and social good, that appeals to Western buyers.
Ethiopian leather derives its high quality from the finer, thinner and softer nature of Ethiopian animal hides, claims Frans Tilstra, a research and communication specialist with CSR Netherlands, a networking organization of socially responsible companies.
“The country is located on fertile highlands at such an elevation that the animals aren’t bothered by swarms of insects,” he adds. “Usually those nasty creatures feed on flocks, resulting in hornet scars in the hides.” He also attributes the abundance of minimally damaged hides to the fact that herds often roam freely, hence avoiding contact with barbed wire.
Ethiopia has the advantage of possessing one of the largest livestock resources in the world and therefore a vast, constant supply of hides and skins. However, it is well known among those in the Ethiopian leather industry that the production side still has a ways to go in terms of quantity and quality. The ultimate aim is to release the true potential of these resources and make Ethiopian leather products across all price points widely available at a level that truly competes with foreign-made goods. Despite the natural advantages cited by Tilstra, those closer to the ground are aware that there is more work to be done in the areas of animal husbandry, as well as raw material handling and preservation — the early phases of the leather value chain during which large quantities of hides and skins become damaged and therefore unusable.
Fortunately, proactive state intervention in terms of aggressive economic policies is seeking to alleviate these problems, as well as shortfalls in the manufacturing and technological phases of the chain. Until 2008, the leather industry largely functioned as an export business for raw and semi-processed skins. But a 2008 tax increase of 150 percent on such exports acted as an incentive for the sector to expand into transforming leather into consumer products.
The Leather Industry Development Institute also provides a range of services from consultancy to laboratory services, all aimed at “expanding the Ethiopian leather industry sustainably and fast.” Internationally, the hard task of finding foreign buyers continues to be aided by the African Growth Opportunity Act, which gives Ethiopian fashion exporters duty-free access to the U.S. market. The sector now also enjoys duty-free entry into Canada and the European Union and preferential duty treatment to Japan and other countries.
The resulting improved local capability has in effect allowed entrepreneurs to reclaim some of the domestic market from foreign imports and venture into the export market. The story of Rosa Abyssinica and Raven + Lily is a prime example of how this process can even mature into international businesses.
Kirsten estimates that since the launch of their partnership and given its visible success, five similar brands have emerged in Ethiopia; leather companies, she notes, are beginning to influence each other to replicate the socially responsible, artisanal production of leather goods for export, either directly or through foreign partnerships.
One such new arrival to this scene is ENAT, a leather goods and jewelry company collaborating with small business owners in Addis to design and co-produce its collection. “We’re seeing more and more companies sourcing from Ethiopia, which indicates to us that the country’s leather industry is on the rise,” says the company’s co-founder Eliza Richman. “Our customers love the quality of the leather and craftsmanship of the bags. We believe Ethiopia has the potential to be a true competitor in the luxury leather market.”
Indeed, Ethiopia’s global image is in the process of an update. “Seeing ‘Brand Ethiopia’ assume its proper, unique and positive place throughout the fashion world is very exciting,” says Abai Schulze, founder of ZAAF, another well-received Ethiopian leather goods company.
Her sentiment echoes Yami’s wish to introduce the world to the many beautiful things Ethiopia has yet to offer — and the world is taking notice. Since that first tote’s exposure on HGTV, scores of fans have channeled their purchasing power toward the global empowerment of women artisans and entrepreneurs and contributed to the growth of a priority Ethiopian economic sector. And with an exclusive partnership in place between Raven + Lily and Magnolia for bags made by Rosa Abyssinica, it seems that the Ethiopian rose and American magnolia will together blossom for many more seasons.
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Other Ethiopian leather accessories brands to look out for:
ENAT, a small-batch producer launched in 2015 and focused on socially and environmentally responsible practices, uses primarily sustainable, recycled and upcycled materials. The company’s goods are designed by the founders and co-produced in collaboration with small-business owners in Addis Ababa, who set its affordable pricing. Buy online at shopenat.com.
LEATHER EXOTICA, established in 2010, is a local Ethiopian brand with an eye on the export market. The brand’s products feature modern bag designs with a uniquely Ethiopian style and high-quality finishing. The company also runs a training school and was among the awardees of the 2015 United Nations Development Program Entrepreneurship Award. Buy online at leethiopia.com or in Addis Ababa’s Bole-Medhane Alem building.
UNOETH, a family enterprise launched in 2015, presents classic designs that tell a story. The company grew out of popular interest in a messenger bag that was initially given as a gift. Its leather bags and accessories are handmade from only Ethiopian leather and produced by artisans and small-business owners in Ethiopia. Buy online at unoeth.com.
ZAAF, a luxury brand launched in 2014 and based in Addis Ababa, derives the design inspiration for its 2017 collection from the city’s human and material diversity. Handbags, accessories, scarves and jackets are handcrafted by artisans from locally sourced leather and accentuated by traditional Ethiopian woven patterns. Buy online at zaafcollection.com.
Rebecca Fisseha writes and lives in Toronto. She got her very first purse at age 15 and hasn’t looked back since.