Salambo discovering Ethiopia
With one of the largest herds of cattle in the world, Ethiopia has a long tradition of working with leather. There are many tanneries in the country producing very fine cow leather exported mainly to Italy. “Export quality” is a label in itself. There is also a local production of leather goods, such as bags and jackets, but the quality of the work can vary greatly.
Still some small designers manage to stand out for their creative mind, high motivation, and skillful work. Fitsum is one such designer. I met him a few months ago when I was taken on a local tour of small independent designers and craft makers. He runs a tiny workshop at the back of his mother’s modest house on the outskirts of the city. The house is relatively hard to find up a mud and stone path, hidden behind a larger building. The gate opening to the ground around the house is made of a corrugated iron sheet held by a couple of eucalyptus poles, but the house itself is of solid brick. His workshop is in a tiny makeshift room in one of the rudimentary side buildings, but this is his space; this is where he works with his four employees and five professional sewing machines. Together, they make attractive handbags under Fitsum’s tight supervision.
A few years ago, Fitsum went on a training course provided by UNIDO, the UN organisation for industrial development, where he learnt the basics of clothes and accessory making. At the end of it, he started his own small business. He is just 25 and has ambition: to create his own label and sales outlet. But he is on his own to do it, which can be difficult. He very recently lost his mother from an illness and is left with no father and a younger sister who is only 10. They are living in the same house and he will most likely be responsible for her. I am trying to help him as I can, introducing new customers and showing his bags around (I can’t keep on buying bags, I’m told I have enough of them!). I have also brought him some of the handbags I had to use as model to create new variations. One thing I have noticed here is that businesses tend to copy each other, so if one shop creates a successful model for a handbag, a month later, the other shops will just replicate it rather than create their own style. So we end up seeing the same object all over the city. By expanding on his range, maybe Fitsum will be able to not only develop his technique but create a distinctive style. At the moment, he is thinking more of reproducing what he sees. He nevertheless does it with great skill, so hopefully with a bit more exposure, he’ll be able to produce a good label and we’ll be buying yet more bags….